Civilized Unions

Editor's Commentary - Should Landscaping Workers be Unionized?

We’re touching on a rather touchy subject this issue: unionized labor. Like seemingly every other topic in this country, the concept of labor unions has nearly identical support and opposition. Just look at the data presented in the sidebars to our feature story: for every four people who favor unions, five do not.

Green Industry Pros contributor, Gary Goldman, honestly and thoughtfully guides us through the notion that a unionized workforce could actually produce a net positive result for the industry. Yes, there are both pros and cons to unionized labor. It’s important to maintain an open mind when studying them, and a civilized tone when discussing them.

Also keep in mind that neither Gary nor I are pro-labor lobbyists. Gary is a consultant, business owner and radio host, as well as a former contractor. I’m a professional communicator whose sole goal is to help our readers prosper, so our advertisers can prosper and I can remain employed.

That said, our readers’ inability to secure an adequate number of competent employees is reaching a crisis level. It’s only going to get worse, barring an unforeseen economic collapse or sudden reversal of attitudes with respect to greatly expanding the H-2B seasonal guest worker visa program.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on H-2B, as it runs counter to the current “America first” mindset that’s in play. As for a more unionized landscaping industry workforce, I personally wouldn’t hold my breath too long either—even though it is in alignment with that mindset.

For one, union formation doesn’t happen overnight. Roughly one in three workers needs to be in support of forming one, and then at least one in two needs to vote in favor. Secondly, union membership as a whole is flat at best, and only represents about 6% of private sector workers. The construction industry actually jumped a point last year to around 14%, but “agriculture and related occupations” (i.e. landscaping) rank among the lowest at just over 1%. Thirdly, Kentucky just became the 27th state to pass “right to work” legislation, which gives the individual employee the right to join or not join a union.

So why in the world are we talking about unions, you ask? Well, things could change. If comprehensive tax reform takes place and businesses are able to keep more of their profits, perhaps they would be more willing—and able—to pay higher wages. Also, as more industries continue to face labor shortages, competition for those dwindling labor supplies increases. That causes wages to rise. Unions typically play an influential role because, on average, union workers end up earning roughly 25% more than their non-union counterparts.

The big question is whether or not labor unions would even attract more people to careers in the green industry. As pointed out, there are many other occupations that are also struggling for employees. In other words, both out-of-work adults and young folks coming out of vocational programs have many career choices. Some will simply have nothing to do with a physically demanding job like landscaping; keep in mind that many of today’s snowflakes would melt in a heartbeat in the hot July sun!

To some workers, though, the security and stability of a union job could encourage them to take a look at our industry. It’s something to think about as you interview, train and fire one inept employee after another this season. I wish you all the best in your endeavors.