The Future of Labor Unions in a Post-Pandemic World

The pandemic changed just about everything, and labor unions are no exception. Although some of these shifts have abated as the world settles into a cautious “new normal,” other effects — especially those in the global workforce — are only being magnified.

Here’s what the pandemic has meant for unions and what employers and workers might expect going forward.

What did the pandemic do to unions?

It’s impossible to talk about unions without addressing the people, so let’s start there.

In 2020, union workers saw less job loss than their non-union counterparts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the unionization rate also rose during this time, indicating that workers may have been looking for more stability and representation.

This trend is at least partly the result of an interesting industry-level correlation between low unionization rates and high pandemic-related job loss. For example, leisure and hospitality were heavily affected by lockdowns, travel restrictions and other changes. It just so happened that these industries also tended to have fewer unions — which, in turn, meant workers had fewer protections.

In this case, correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation. The pandemic introduced factors that went far beyond union considerations to deeply shake the global workforce, so it isn’t fair to say unions saved jobs on their own. Nonetheless, non-union workers who experienced layoffs may have looked for more protections in their next role.

On top of all that, research has found that the pandemic affected labor in other ways:

● Pre-pandemic union wage premiums changed very little.
● Union workers were less likely to work remotely but more likely to be paid for hours not worked as a result of COVID-19.
● Unions potentially provided economic buffers during the pandemic-led recession.

What are the lasting effects?

As COVID-19 concerns died down and surviving organizations resumed somewhat normal activities, the global workforce shifted yet again. Some companies remained fully remote, others moved to hybrid work, and still others decided to bring staff back to the office. Many employees weren’t happy about returning.

This controversy still rages on, even three years later. Big-name companies like Amazon, Disney, Tesla and Starbucks now require employees to stay on-site. Workers note that these shifts eat into their work-life balance and potentially reduce how much their salaries are worth — which is setting the perfect stage for unionization.

For example, remote employees hired during the pandemic might be required to move if their company asks them to come into the office. Relocation fees, commute fees and a higher cost of living mean those remote wages are less attractive. Unions offer a collaborative, supportive way to address such grievances and negotiate reasonable protections.

Of course, the conversation around remote vs. in-person work isn’t the COVID-19’s only lasting impact on labor. During the pandemic, some essential employees — even those traditionally outside union representation — began striking and taking other actions to demand better working conditions. Some of their concerns have been addressed by better pandemic management since 2020, but others are still alive and well in the work world.

Simply put, COVID-19 sparked conversations about flexibility, workers’ rights and working environments that might only be answered through unionization.

Are unions changing?

It’s clear that many workers have a plethora of reasons to gravitate toward unions. There’s another perspective to consider, however: All this change could have an impact on unions themselves.

Although a variety of laws govern union formation, rights, responsibilities and limitations, it’s also important to note the influence of external factors. For example, the Biden Administration has been vocally pro-union, bringing more attention to workers’ rights and the role of labor protections in the U.S. This kind of support, plus a long list of grievances aggravated by the pandemic, could have unions pushing for more power.

On top of that, new voices are always adding to the chorus of unionized workers. From young people just joining the workforce to traditionally non-unionized employees, different viewpoints are shaping the conversation. Fresh ideas, approaches and values might shift the ways in which unions interact with employers — not to mention the kinds of requests they make.

At the end of the day, it’s critical to realize that unionization has far-reaching impacts, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The future of these groups is largely dependent on social patterns, shifting values and, often, global events like the pandemic.