Local unions are looking at how to navigate through an economy that is being changed by the COVID-19 pandemic and by people’s responses to the virus.
Leaders are hoping to promote union membership as a way to higher wages and better benefits and working conditions amid the ongoing national worker shortage.
The pandemic also has unions making use of the latest technology and popular social media sites for promotion.
One local is looking at using short-form video platform TikTok to recruit younger workers. Unions also have been using videoconference applications for contract negotiations and organizing when face-to-face meetings can’t take place.
Union membership grows in Ohio
Employment figures show union membership dropped nationally last year, based on the latest available figures, even as the rate of union membership rose slightly year over year. While that may appear to be contradictory, it is because of a large overall decline in nonunion employment last year from the pandemic.
Nationally, union membership as a percentage of working people was 10.5% in 2020, up slightly from 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nationally, there were 14.3 million people counted as union members, down 321,000 from 2019. Public sector union membership, which includes police, teachers, firefighters and local government workers, was at 34.8% last year, while private sector union membership was at 6.3%.
In Ohio, union members made up 13.2% of wage and salary workers in 2020, up from 11.9% in 2019. Union members in the state totaled 637,000 in 2020, up from 610,000 in 2019.
In the Akron metropolitan statistical area — Summit and Portage counties — there were 15,813 private sector union workers and 26,094 public sector union workers in 2020, based on an annually updated database at unionstats.com.
Layoffs largely over
Pandemic-related job losses and layoffs are largely now in the rearview mirror, according to local unions. But some leaders worry that so many people refusing to take jobs could create serious repercussions in the relatively near future.
“When COVID first happened and we got into the shutdown mode, so to speak, we did experience some layoffs at some of the companies, a lot of the companies, to be honest,” said Travis Bornstein, head of Akron-based Teamsters Local 24. The local represents about 1,500 people who include hourly workers at local freight/trucking companies and also at a manufacturer.
“We probably had 500 people laid off for a while,” Bornstein said. “It didn’t really last long because all of our companies are essential employees.”
The Teamsters pushed companies to comply with all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines so employees could safely return to work, he said.
“Once we got in compliance with all of that, it’s been full tilt from there,” Bornstein said.
Younger people shun many jobs
Still, the current worker shortage “is real” and impacting businesses and union locals, he said. Just about every Teamsters employer is hiring and having a hard time getting truck drivers, dockworkers and others, he said.
Among the freight-related workers, Bornstein said he is seeing truck drivers, mostly in their 50s, keeping the same kind of job but changing companies in search of better pay and benefits.
But younger people, largely those 35 and under, are not applying for those kind of open jobs, Bornstein said.
“I think that’s the lesson that we’re learning through the pandemic,” he said. “We know more people have quit their jobs during the pandemic. And I think a lot of folks sat at home and decided they weren’t going back to that [previous] job. Our guys didn’t sit at home. They worked through the whole pandemic. All of our guys are back and on the job.”
The open jobs at Teamsters-affiliated companies are good union jobs but younger people are largely staying away, Bornstein said.
“You’re going to make good money. You’re going to have health insurance. You will have some type of retirement. You’re going to have a grievance procedure. You’re going to have work rules and so forth,” he said. “I think they’ve just decided they don’t want these kind of manual jobs. That’s my opinion.”
Teamsters Local 24 has not been shrinking because of the problems filling open jobs, Bornstein said. “We’re growing as these companies are finding workers.”
Self-driving trucks are coming
The public needs to recognize that employers are in a position where they need to invest in people or invest in technology, Bornstein said. “And if you can’t get the people, it’s forcing them to invest in technology.”
That means trucking companies, for example, are helping develop vehicles that don’t require drivers and are looking at other ways to automate, Bornstein said.
“The autonomous truck is real. Some robot type stuff in the warehouse is going to be coming,” he said. “I think that stuff is real and it’s something we’re going to have to face. … It’s hard to really complain about it if you don’t have the job.
“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on our economy,” Bornstein said. “It’s coming. And it’s probably going to have to come faster than we thought if you can’t get people [to work].”
People may find that they will be automated out of the opportunity of getting a job, Bornstein said.
Essential workers remain busy
The Steelworkers, whose Akron locals include race tire makers at Goodyear and at Bridgestone, have not been severely impacted by the pandemic, said Bill Conner, subdistrict director based in Canton.
“The plants we represented were considered essential employees,” he said. “There were some partial closedowns and layoffs but not significant. And they are bounding back. … The work is going on strong. They’re hiring. Mostly everyone is hiring, particularly skilled trades.”
Conner said he is not aware of companies having significant problems filling openings for skilled tradespeople. He thinks union membership is rebounding.
The pandemic did cause in-person grievance hearings to come to a standstill, Conner said. Grievance and arbitration hearings are now taking place using videoconferencing, which is helping reduce backlogs, he said.
“Over the past year, we did numerous contract extensions” because the pandemic made it impossible for people to meet in person and engage in full contract negotiations, he said. “They are difficult to do virtually.”
Bricklayers Local 7, which represents workers in the Akron area, is having a difficult time, like other unions, filling journeyman and apprentice positions, said Noah Carmichael, the local’s business manager.
Bricklayers overall did pretty well during the pandemic because they are deemed essential workers, he said. The larger pandemic issues included getting workers to quickly adjust to changing safety protocols and rules that changed on the fly, he said.
“We didn’t have a big slowdown,” he said.
Work conditions, pay are top of mind
The pandemic has led to many workers opening their eyes to the working conditions and pay they are receiving, Carmichael said.
Many of them have refused to return to work or are attempting to improve work conditions, he said.
“I think we should definitely be supporting workers who are attempting to improve their conditions,” he said. “They are our neighbors and our friends, and they showed us their work is pretty vital and deserves to be done with dignity. That’s been a large social awakening for working people, especially in the service industry.”
Organized labor “would be silly” not to use current pay and conditions as a talking point and a way to recruit people to a union, Carmichael said. “It’s just a good idea to get together with your co-workers or like-minded working people and talk about what you think could make your job better, make your life better.”
Recruiting moving to TikTok
The pandemic made traditional organizing efforts more difficult, Bricklayers Local 7’s Carmichael said.
“It made us move in a more digital kind of recruitment, because we couldn’t go face to face on so many job sites for a while,” Carmichael said. “So we had to get ourselves into the digital recruiting game.”
The Bricklayers are increasing going online, including using job platforms, to get their messaging out, he said.
“Social media is obviously the biggest one. It’s the easiest to spread via word of mouth, and advertisements on social media as well,” Carmichael said.
“I’m most familiar with Facebook so that’s the one we probably utilize the most. My daughter tells me that’s for old people,” he said. “We’re looking at other areas of social media.
“We are looking at doing some things on TikTok,” Carmichael said. “Whatever we’ve got to do to promote new people’s interest in the trades, I guess. And what we do as Bricklayers is kind of cool to watch, so I think that could translate well into small video bites for TikTok.”
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or [email protected] Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/JimMackinnonABJ.