Finding Their Voices/Professionals and Workforce Representation

A significant percentage of unorganized professionals would like to be represented in their workplaces by a union or some other type of “employee organization.” This conclusion, drawn from two unique studies, comes in spite of the fact that many professionals hold a stereotypical view of unions as overly confrontational.

These findings may help to explain a recent upsurge in union activity among professionals. The studies, which were commissioned by the Albert Shanker Institute, also indicate that professionals want a workplace organization–whether or not they classify it as a union–which would serve their professional interests, as much as their economic concerns.

Professional employees, whose ranks have grown to almost 25 million in recent years, comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. workforce. According to the reports, which include a national poll of professional and technical employees, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, and a study of new workplace organizations, conducted by David Kusnet of the Economic Policy Institute, these workers are as concerned about the quality of the work they do as the conditions under which they work. They also want respect, a voice in decision-making, better compensation, and a clear process for dealing with management that will enable them to live up to their professional values, improve the goods and services they produce, and make a contribution to society.

“These reports reveal what professional workers want,” said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “now it’s up to us to provide it. Today’s professional unions must address a broad range of membership needs, such as opportunities for professional training and advancement, setting standards for the profession, and safeguarding quality–in addition to taking on traditional labor issues, such as salaries, benefits, and working conditions.”

Despite holding some negative views about unions, professionals are one of the most highly organized segments of the workforce (about 23 percent of professionals are represented by a union, versus 15.4 percent for all American workers.) This is partly explained by poll results showing that 71 percent of professionals express conditional support for the formation of unions (45 percent believe unions are a good idea when management is unfair or unreasonable; an additional 26 percent believe they’re a good idea in most cases). Younger workers and those who have had direct experience with unions are even more likely to be union supporters.

The survey, Professionals and Workplace Representation, is based on a national sample of roughly 1,200 workers from four diverse professions–engineers, informational technology workers, nurses, and teachers. It explores how professionals view their work and changes taking place in their fields, what can be done to improve their effectiveness, and which kinds of organizations (unions, professional associations, workplace organizations) would best represent their personal and professional interests.

The qualitative research, Finding their Voices: Professional and Technical Employees and their Organizations, which was written by David Kusnet, a labor analyst and former chief speechwriter for President Clinton, examines some of the ways professionals in various industries are organizing themselves.

Professionals Support Forming Workplace Organizations that Serve Professional Ends
According to the Hart survey, a majority of professional employees (55 percent) approve of having an employee organization in their workplace to represent their interests. This includes more than three-quarters of teachers (78 percent), three out of five nurses (60 percent), nearly half of all information technology workers (48 percent), and a third of engineers (34 percent).

In addition, the poll found interesting differences in the levels of support by gender, age, and earning power. Among non-represented workers, for example, a majority of women (55 percent) but only 37 percent of men support forming an employee organization. More than half (52 percent) of non-represented younger workers (under age 34) are in favor of establishing a workplace organization, as are 42 percent of baby boomers (age 35 to 49) and nearly half (46 percent) of workers over 50.

The poll also found that professionals in more unionized and traditionally female fields are more likely to be supportive of unionization. Nearly three-fourths of teachers (74 percent) and half of nurses (50 percent) approve of forming a union, compared with one in three technology professionals (36 percent) and one in five engineers (21 percent).

Asked to describe the qualities they desire in such an organization, the survey found that respondents want their organizations to understand professionals (76 percent), be responsive to individuals (69 percent), speak out for quality (67 percent), and provide professional training (64 percent)–as well as to serve the traditional union roles of working with management (63 percent), and improving salaries (58 percent) and benefits (58 percent).

“I believe more and more professional workers are turning to union organizations to protect their interests and enhance their careers,” noted Morton Bahr, president of the Communication Workers of America. “Many of the issues that professional workers face today aren’t at all different from those our members have been facing for decades–the impact of changing technology, the need for lifelong learning, the struggle to balance work and family. Professional workers are realizing that union representation enables their voices to be heard and their expertise respected.”

The Question of Unions

The Hart report found wide support for employee organization among professionals. There is some slippage, however, when the word “union” is attached to the idea of workplace representation. According to the report, “looking at professionals overall, there is clearly a ‘union gap’ in perceptions that leads to greater support for a generic ‘employee organization’ (55 percent) than a union (45 percent).”

The report attributes this gap to two ideas about unions that are held by many unorganized professionals. First is the belief that unions increase conflict with management. Professionals want an organization that will give them a strong voice and protect their professional prerogatives. But they also prefer to avoid conflict and would like their organizations to work cooperatively with management to resolve issues of professional concern. Second, a number of unorganized professionals doubt that unions can deliver substantive benefits.

Despite these obstacles, the report finds that “most professionals remain open to union representation.” It also concludes that professionals who are already represented by unions don’t share the doubts of their unorganized colleagues.

Actual Experience Transforms Views on Unions

The survey found overwhelming evidence that experience with unions is transformational for employees. In spite of the lack of support for unions by specific groups, those who have had personal experience with union representation are overwhelmingly positive. A comparison of the national sample of engineers with the Boeing engineers who recently affiliated with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers found a stunning contrast in attitudes. While only one in five (21 percent) of the national sample of engineers favor a union, support is 91 percent among the members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, which represents over 24,000 engineers, scientists, technical and professional employees at Boeing. Overall, the “union gap” virtually disappears among those professionals who are already represented in the workplace (75 percent support organization, 71 percent support a union); while union members themselves actually support a union (81 percent) more strongly than they do a more generic “workplace organization” (76 percent).

“This data confirms our own experience with engineers at Boeing,” said Paul Almeida, President of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, whose affiliate struck Boeing this spring. “Many of the doubts and concerns professionals express about collective representation fade away with direct experience.”

Professionals Like Work More than Working Conditions

According to the Kusnet report, one of the keys to understanding professionals’ interest in workplace representation is the fact that many of these employees love their work, but not their jobs. The results of the Hart survey would seem to bear this out. It found that nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of workers are very satisfied or mainly satisfied with their work.
Survey results also make clear that some professionals feel that conditions in their industries are changing for the worse. Many of those polled fear that management no longer trusts and respects them, and resent the restraints on their professionalism that have weakened their ability to help others. Nurses see their profession as clearly in decline (55 percent getting worse, 15 percent better), as do teachers (48 percent worse, 19 percent better). However, IT professionals are very upbeat (61 percent better, 12 percent worse), and engineers also offer a positive assessment (46 percent better, 20 percent worse).

More than wages and working conditions, these feelings are directly related to support for unions. Three out of five of those who say their profession is getting worse, but only about a third (37 percent) of those who say it is improving, support forming an employee organization. In fact, the survey suggests that a key impetus for unionization among professionals is the feeling that their professionalism is being undermined or devalued.

About the Studies; Albert Shanker Institute

The Kusnet study, Finding their Voices, tells the stories of efforts of registered nurses, Microsoft software testers and content providers, and Boeing engineers and technicians to form unions and professional organizations to advocate for their workplace and professional interests. Professionals and knowledge workers are interested in pay, benefits, and conditions, not just as material benefits but as evidence of their value to employers and society, according to the report. It concludes that white-collar workers “believe they are more loyal to the traditions and missions of the institutions for which they work than are the executives who currently run these institutions.” The report also states that professionals are willing to organize but “want to struggle for something broader than their self-interest.”

The research conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates included a national telephone survey among 1189 currently employed professionals, divided about equally between four professions: nurses (306 interviews), teachers (301), engineers (305), and information technology professionals (277). These four occupational groups taken together represent about one-half of all U.S. professionals. The margin of error for each group is +/-5.8%.

The Albert Shanker Institute, named after the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, was founded in 1998 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to three concerns–children’s education, unions as advocates for quality, and freedom of association as a centerpiece of democracy. Its mission is to generate ideas and foster candid exchanges about these issues. The Institute’s board is composed of business representatives, labor leaders, academics, educators, and public policy analysts.

Download the preface below.