As you will be aware, postal workers, university lecturers and teachers are going on strike as industrial unrest continues to spread across the country in disputes over pay, jobs and conditions. Picket lines are appearing outside postal delivery and sorting offices, universities and schools as unions edge closer to co-ordinated industrial action. Nursing staff are also planning their first strike in history. Commentors are comparing the scale of the unrest to the 1980s miners’ strike when Margaret Thatcher swept to power after the winter of discontent. But how does the US compare? If you’re a business with a presence in the US, it’s a relevant question to be asking.
It would appear the picture in the US has parallels. The headline story last week on the website of CNN Business was about a looming freight rail strike with the parties heading back to the negotiating table for talks involving four unions which coordinated their action in a way we are starting to see in the UK. In that case, unsurprisingly, pay is a factor but it goes wider than that. The sticking point in the negotiations is reported to be over scheduling, staffing levels and the lack of paid sick leave. There are similar disputes across many other sectors in the US with strikes, or the threat of strikes making the headlines on a regular basis, as in the UK.
The background to this is that in the US the unions are on a roll. As the Guardian reports, there has been a wave of successes for the unions in recent months across a number of different sectors. Companies affected include the giant coffee chain Starbucks, outdoor outfitters REI and media group the New York Times. Labour strategists are saying it marks ‘an unusually promising moment’ for unions as they strain to build a larger wave. However, it won’t be easy because, as they point out, US corporations fight fiercely against unionisation. It explains why the level of union recognition in the US remains low - around a third of that in the UK. In the private sector in the US just 6% of workers are members of a union. Nonetheless, the level of employee-led activism has never been higher - a 40% increase since the start of the pandemic with employees, especially millennials, pressuring companies to do something about the issues that are important to them.
So, let’s hear more about all of that. Ben Stockman is a lawyer with law firm Venable and earlier he joined me by video-link from New York:
Ben Stockman: “Employers are facing a confluence of factors that are putting pressure on them as a result of emboldened trade unions in the US. Inflation is an obvious factor, lingering costs associated with health and safety regulations, and protections related to COVID continue to be pressuring employers. Also, labour shortages are putting pressure on employers and their ability to keep work production high and, finally - and this sort of transitions into the general trend of employee involvement - diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have had the effect of providing employees with an unprecedented level of data about their employers and I believe that access to data has bled over to the benefit of trade unions as well.”
Joe Glavina: “Can I ask about trade unions the level of activism generally in the US, Ben. Here in the UK there is a huge amount of industrial unrest with the threat of strikes. Do you have a similar problem in the states?”
Ben Stockman: “We do, Joe. There are isolated cases of threats of strike, contracts that have gone through expiration and have a unionised workforce that is rattling sabres. Overall, the trend in the US continues to be downward for union membership - it has shrunk significantly since the 1960s. However, at the moment there's a lot of publicity around the increasing popularity of trade unions and we're seeing unions make efforts to organise in non-traditional areas. These organising campaigns tend to get a lot of press but have resulted in mixed results. So, overall we're seeing that the trends more or less are continuing that union membership continues to decline. However, at the moment, trade unions seem to be experiencing a rise in popularity and I think that is as a result of these factors that are buffeting employers now, the economy, COVID, health and safety concerns, labour shortages, and the leverage associated with those issues.”
Aside from industrial relations, Ben has also talked to this programme about potential reform of restrictive covenants in the US, an issue the UK government has also been looking at with its consultation in December 2020 on measures to reform post-termination non-compete clauses in contracts of employment. The government says it is still analysing the feedback from that.
Ben covers the US angle in two programmes, ‘Could US review of non-competes sway UK reforms?’ and ‘State-by-state approach needed to US non-compete reforms’. We have put links to both of those in the transcript of this programme.