Kimberly Marselas

I’ve been a union member twice in my life, both times at jobs where I didn’t understand their potential power or how their work might have benefitted me. 

The first time, I was young and childless, covered by my parents’ insurance and working for tuition and grocery money.

Then I graduated college and got a job in journalism, where efforts to unionize have been notoriously bad.

Even so, when I became a state employee a few years later, I rejoiced at the higher pay and awesome fringe benefits — and groaned internally when I learned I had to pay union dues. For many Americans of my generation (and likely in my socioeconomic class), unions have been viewed with suspicion or maybe just as do-nothing pickpockets.

But the tides were turning even before COVID-19 launched a pandemic and laid bare the struggle of the essential worker in America. In 2020, 65% of survey respondents told Gallup they approved of unions, a major rebound since a low of 48% in recession-ravaged 2009.

To find a 70% or higher approval, you’d have to go way back to the unions’ heyday in the 1960s. Could we be approaching that now? Or will consumers blame unions for driving up wages and contributing to inflation? I’m curious what this year’s results will reveal about how workers’ rights groups are faring in the public mind.

By the stories recently coming across our desks here at McKnight’s, I’m guessing unions are growing in reputation and in membership. As the divide (or even the perceived divide) between the haves and have-nots grows, unions would seem well situated to rise in power once again.

Essential workers see corporate profits exploding in the U.S., and they’ve witnessed white collar workers largely escape the pandemic’s brunt with work-from-home perks to boot. Their wages feel stagnant by comparison, their jobs still potentially dangerous.

Nursing homes, with their high number of blue collar and entry-level employees, are ripe for union exploitation. And I don’t necessarily mean that with a negative connotation.

For providers who’ve done well financially during the pandemic (and they do exist), challenges from upstart organizers and demands from established ones can only be expected to increase. The question is whether operators, especially those battling the invectives being thrown at private-equity influences, will come to the table ready to negotiate.

If strike threats and smear campaigns happening along the East Coast this month are any indication, they might want to get their bargaining chips ready.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor for McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.