John O'Connor illustration
McKnight’s Editorial Director John O’Connor
John O'Connor
John O’Connor

Until recently, unions have been largely unsuccessful at convincing senior living workers to join their ranks. But there are some pretty clear signs that the times, they are a changing.

Unions recently captured some eye-popping contract settlements. In August, American Airlines agreed to give its pilots a 46% pay increase over four years. Also in the summer, UPS workers won raises of $7.50 an hour over five years, with drivers’ wages climbing to $49 an hour.

More than 85,000 Kaiser Permanente workers won raises of 21%, with a guaranteed minimum of $25 an hour for company workers in California.

But perhaps the most notable recent victory goes to the United Auto Workers. The UAW launched a six-week, surgical strike against the nation’s largest automakers:  Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Stellantis.

The Big Three quickly caved and agreed to 25% pay increases that will raise top pay to about $42 an hour. With a little overtime, many workers soon could be earning six-figure incomes, putting them solidly in the middle class. The union also gained pension improvements and other concessions. 

The list of union victories goes on, but you probably get the general idea. Unionized employees are killing it these days.

To understand the implications for senior living operators, it’s important to consider the three main drivers of increased union activity: soaring living costs, rising income inequality and the significant pay gap between workers and top executives. Funny enough, all three are in play when it comes to senior living.

Adding to the mix is a low unemployment rate and an abundance of job opportunities.

Moreover, high-profile victories such as the one UAW workers achieved might inspire organizing efforts across various other sectors, potentially leading to future contract talks and strikes.

If there’s any comfort to be had here for management, it’s worth noting that despite the recent surge in labor activism and growing support for unions among the public, union membership rates have been on the decline for decades. 

In fact, only 6% of private-sector workers in the United States currently belong to unions, a fraction of the 35% in 1953.

Additionally, the rise of the gig economy has made it harder for workers to unionize, as some large companies classify employees as “contractors.”

In recent years, labor laws have had a significant impact on the state of unions. Some states have passed “right to work” laws that undermine the financial resources and bargaining power of unions. Furthermore, some states have rolled back union protections, creating a challenging environment for organizers in areas with little history of organized labor.

All things considered, it is essential for long-term care providers to stay informed, understand the evolving labor laws and proactively address employee concerns to maintain a harmonious working environment while navigating the changing dynamics of the labor market.

As never before in recent memory, employees are in a position to  challenge their employers for higher pay, better benefits and clearly defined career paths. If and when they feel employers are not treating them well enough, they are that much more likely to start looking for the union label.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s Senior Living and its sister media brands, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, which focuses on skilled nursing, and McKnight’s Home Care. Read more of his columns here.