Are Unions Relevant in the Age of Telework?

Could telework be the death of unions in the federal government?

Unions began in the United States for the most part in industrial workplaces. People who worked in factories and mines banded together to seek a voice in the workplace.

That voice has become smaller since the heyday of unions in the last century. There are many reasons for the decline of union membership. The one obvious one is the increased expertise of management in preventing the unionization of employees. There was a recent failed, but much publicized, vote in Alabama on a union at an Amazon fulfillment center. There were probably many reasons that the union lost and as reported chief among them was the belief by employees that they were treated well by Amazon and didn’t need a union.

Unions in the Federal Sector

One of the last bastions of union strength is federal unions. Management in the federal sector is not nearly as aggressive as their private sector counterparts in attempting to thwart union organizing or sponsoring union decertification drives.

Federal agencies would undoubtedly have a hard time getting Congress to authorize the expenditure of funds to mount anti-union efforts. Instead, it relies on the Executive Branch to spearhead drives to reduce the influence of federal unions. However, every legislative session of Congress sees a congressman sponsor legislation to limit or eliminate official time for union representatives – the very lifeblood of federal unions. Session after session these efforts come to naught.

Telework – Management’s Secret Weapon

However, there may be a secret weapon that management doesn’t even realize it has. COVID-19 may prove to be a very effective instrument for reducing union membership throughout the federal government. It will do this not by a frontal assault on unions but as a result of the changes in the workplace management may bring about in response to COVID-19. To an extent never before believed possible, vast segments of the federal workforce have enjoyed extensive telework over the past year and a half. 

Who was eligible for telework in the past was a hard-fought issue between union and management with the unions seeking to expand eligibility and management seeking to limit it. The arguments on limiting telework have lost some credibility after a year and half’s experience which has not shown that wide spread telework has resulted in diminished productivity. There is evidence that seems to support the assertion that it actually improved productivity. It is generally believed that the workplace of the future will be a much greater mix of work done in the office and work done at home.

The Impact of Telework on Union Membership

With a greater number of employees working from home, what does this mean for unions?

Most federal unions are forbidden by law to bargain over the bread-and-butter issues of pay and benefits. Much of federal sector bargaining deals with issues related to the work place, hours of work, performance, and other working conditions unrelated to pay and benefits. Also, a considerable amount of representational time is spent dealing with issues between individual supervisors and employees based on workplace interactions.

If employees can work whenever they want to, wherever they want to, in an office environment of their own choosing and don’t have to interact extensively with their supervisors, could this greatly lesson an employee’s perceived need for union representation? In a sense, employees can almost be looked at as independent contractors divorced from the rest of the workforce. 

Actual dues paying union membership in some bargaining units in the federal sector hovers at around 10% of the total number of bargaining unit employees. Other bargaining units have a considerably higher percentage of membership.

The question is how will the continued absence of employees from the workplace affect membership. Will this become a case of out of sight out of mind? If employees don’t care about tangible improvements in their workplace because they are very rarely there or find there is no need for representation because less interaction with their managers leads to less conflict, why do they need a union? Additionally, the geographic distribution of employees as a result of telework can make it harder to provide representation.

Unions Must Adapt Their Approach

As supervisors must change their approach to supervising with a much larger portion of their employees teleworking, so too will unions have to change their approach to representing employees or potentially become irrelevant.

There are still many issues for which the union can provide meaningful representation. The transition from office based to more telework will require bargaining over the transition to a more telework based workforce which will greatly assist employees.

Once that bargaining is done, what are the next big issues which will affect the teleworking employees because they will not necessarily be the same as those of the past? The unions will have to learn what are the new issues employees have as a result of teleworking and how to communicate with its bargaining unit.

Many unions will not have as big a physical presence in the work place because many union representatives will also be teleworking. Instead of a bricks and mortar union office on site, a union may become a virtual union which does most of its dealings using Facetime or Skype or some other virtual format. Organizing may have to be done virtually as opposed to on-site presentations.

Some bargaining units will not be affected to the same degree because the majority of its employees will not be teleworking. But those who do not get to telework may be looking for workplace improvements which in the past would not have been possible such as a daycare facility on site or a daycare subsidy. They may want a better office environment and not just the same old work place as pre-COVID. 

Unions will have to improve their approach to communicating with bargaining unit employees. In the past, some union offices were a magnet for bargaining unit employees to come and talk to a representative. The reps may not be accessible on site as in the past. Even though they are not there they have to make their presence known to the bargaining unit and the managers. This will take a different approach to communication. 

To stay relevant, unions will have to make changes just as managers will have to adapt to a much larger portion of the workforce teleworking. I still remember a former president of a large federal union telling me telework is the worst thing to happen to unions. He was very much against it. He believed it would lead to fewer employees wanting to be members of the union. I’m sure most federal union leaders are hoping he was wrong.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.