In the minds of many operators, nursing homes and unions go together about as well as ice cream and sauerkraut.

The industry’s general animus here is not terribly hard to understand. From an operator’s perspective, unions mean higher operating costs, loss of control and additional red tape. Who needs that?

But if the vox populi is to be believed, you might think we are on the cusp of a major union renaissance.

A fresh Gallup Poll finds that union support exceeded its long-term average for the fifth year in a row.

Among the respondents:

  • 67% approved of labor unions
  • 61% indicated unions help rather than hurt the US economy
  • 43% wanted unions to have greater influence
  • 34% predicted unions will become stronger.

Is such enthusiasm likely to reverse a downward slide? Don’t bet on it.

According to Bureau of Labor statistics also released last week, the nation’s composition of unionized hourly and salaried workers dropped to about 10% of the workforce in 2023. For those of you keeping score at home, that happens to be an all-time low.

Moreover,  6 in 10 respondents from the same Gallup poll indicated they were “not interested at all” in actually joining a union.

So, how do we explain the apparent support for unions (at least among workers) on the one hand, and dwindling real numbers on the other? I think three contributing factors need to be kept in mind.

The first is that many employers are successfully using disincentives. These efforts range from the perfectly fine to the are-you-kidding-me? How much of the latter is in play in long-term care is anybody’s guess. But there’s no denying that many workers fail to support or actually join unions out of fear.

Conversely, perhaps some credit is due to employers. That’s particularly true for operators who have created supportive work environments that make joining a union seem superfluous at best, and an unnecessary expense at worst.

Finally, let’s not forget the people who run unions. Simply put, many would-be card-carrying members are not buying what these folks are selling. Truth be told, a lot of things union leaders have done over the years have less to do with taking care of members than serving other agendas.

Boiled down, the continuing decline in union representation might simply be  a matter of just desserts.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s. Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.