The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions decreased to 14.3 million in 2020, down 321,000 (2.2%) from 2019. That was the bad news for labor unions. The good news was that the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of unions actually rose to 10.8% in 2020, up 0.5% from 2019.
At first glance, you might wonder if that was a typo. How could the number of union workers go down so drastically, while the percentage of workers who belonged to a union went up. It’s not a mistake. The seeming discrepancy is the result of 9.6 million workers losing their jobs in 2020 in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of those who did get laid off were non-union employees, which meant union members made up a larger portion of the now-reduced total labor force at the end of the year.
An Up-and-Down History
It shouldn’t be surprising that union members were better able to keep their jobs than their non-union counterparts. After all, protecting workers’ jobs is one of the presumed benefits of union representation. Still, unions do more for their members than simply keep them on payrolls. Over the years, unions have fought for higher wages, safer working conditions, shorter hours, better non-wage benefits, greater training, and a host of other things.
According to history.com, collective bargaining performed extraordinarily well after World War II, more than tripling weekly earnings in manufacturing between 1945 and 1970. Union workers gained an unprecedented level of job security against old age and illness, and through contractual protections, greatly strengthened their right to fair treatment in the workplace. Although old employment records are difficult to verify, a couple of sources suggested the percentage of U.S. workers belonging to a union peaked in the early- to mid-1950s at almost 35%. Although the percentage had declined by the end of the 1970s, the total number of union members reportedly peaked in 1979 at an estimated 21 million.
That’s when the Reagan administration put its thumb on the non-union side of the scale. President Reagan famously busted the air traffic controllers strike in 1981, and by the end of his second term only 16.8% of American workers were unionized—less than half the share recorded during organized labor’s heyday. The trend has continued downward for the most part ever since.
Making a Difference for Utility Workers
Labor unions have long been a part of the power industry landscape. In fact, utility workers are among the most unionized occupation categories at 20.6%, behind only protective service occupations (36.6%); education, training, and library occupations (35.9%); and public sector employees (34.8%).
The National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (NBEW) was founded in 1891. Its first convention drew only 10 delegates, but those “founding fathers” understood that in order to win better treatment from the large corporate telephone, telegraph, electric power, electrical contracting, and electrical equipment manufacturing companies, they would all need to stand together. Over the next decade, the NBEW would see its membership grow to more than 1,700 workers including an all-women’s local in Cleveland, Ohio, and a local in Ottawa, Canada, which led to the union changing its name to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in 1899.
“Our organization’s goal has remained steady since our beginning: to promote excellence in the electrical industry and improve our members’ lives,” IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson wrote in the opening of a history document about the IBEW. “We will never forget all the work done by our predecessors to build and grow this organization. Their fight for a standard of living proportionate to their skills and integrity continues to this day,” he added.
The IBEW claims to represent about 775,000 active members and retirees from a wide variety of fields, including utilities, construction, telecommunications, broadcasting, manufacturing, railroads, and government. However, it is not the only union that represents power industry workers. Another is the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), which says it represents about 50,000 active members employed in the energy, electric, gas, steam, water, and related professional, technical, and service industries.
Working Together with Employers
In an exclusive interview with POWER, UWUA President James T. Slevin said there is a common misperception surrounding employer and organized labor interactions. Slevin suggested many people believe there is a contentious atmosphere between the groups, but he said, “That’s not true. We have some great relationships with employers and strive in common goals with the employers.”
Slevin said, “Employers are realizing that organized labor brings a lot to the table.” Union workers are not only skilled, but also devoted to their craft. They typically provide great stability to the workforce, and often remain in their field for lifelong careers. They also bring a sense of pride to the industry. “Some of that’s missing today, and I think unions and companies that work in common goals have that in a way,” Slevin said.
Although the power landscape is changing, with more renewable energy resources being added to the grid, while conventional coal-fired and nuclear plants are being retired, Slevin suggested workers from the thermal power stations still offer great value to the industry. “I consider our utility workers veterans of energy,” he said. “No disrespect to our men and women in the armed service, but these are veterans of energy. They’ve provided for the communities and safeguarded the communities over decades. And just like our armed service veterans—we shouldn’t throw them on the street—and we shouldn’t forget about our utility workers as we change and we do a different fashion today.”
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.