Labor Unions– Reinventing Labor Unionism for 21st Century: Yesterday Champion–Today’s Underdog… Relevant or Relics…

The world and workplace are changing, and so must we… The role of labor movement is not to reminisce about the old economy, but to represent workers in the new economy. ~John Sweeney

Labor unions have been very successful, for decades, at representing their membership’s interests in the workplace: Resolving conflict with employers, improving working conditions, providing workers with equal pay and equal opportunities… However, labor unions (unions) are not as relevant, today, as they once were.

According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, private-sector union membership has fallen from a high of around 35% in 1950s to just a fraction under 8% today. Several factors have contributed to decline; increased globalization, improved condition for non-union workers, growing employer and political resistance to private sector unionization…

The tumble has been marked by loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, with more than 3 million going away since 2000 alone. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better, as many major corporations are closing manufacturing plants and shifting more production to countries with cheaper labor. 

For years, most old guard unions have relied on political connections as the tried and true route to power and relevance… this has long meant significant spending by labor unions in support of candidates and officeholders that are union friendly, both nationally and at local levels. But with membership steadily dwindling, many in the labor movement have grumbled for years that unions need to take a fresh approach to their task…

In the article Labor Unions Factor into Profitability & Competitiveness of Enterprise by Jim Romeo writes:  The labor management debate continues, i.e., fair and reasonable wages for workers versus the economic toll for an employer to pay such wages and remain profitable. Wages and benefits are a vital ingredient in the work force planning efforts of any organization that expands, contracts, or develops its geographic position. In fact, labor considerations are an integral part of any work site decision and one that often steers the final decision.

According to ‘Tom Davis’;there are many different factors that go into an organization’s work site selection decision… whether it’s a state’s ‘right-to-work’ law, or perceptions about the ability to remain union free– they are often on the list of factors considered… however, the key decisive factors are much more likely to involve financial incentives; the availability of adequate pool of skilled workers, transportation, and proximity to customers... rather than whether the area is perceived to be anti-union. That being said, over the past decade it seems that states with ‘right to work’ have more success attracting major transplant companies than states that are historically more heavily unionized’.

Unions aren’t going away, but they are certainly on the down-trend for private companies. Public unions– those for federal, state, and local government entities– now account for the majority share of all union members. In fact, 2009 was the first year in U.S. history that public sector union members outnumbered private sector counterparts, says ‘Professor Logan’.

The same was true in 2010. Private-sector union members remain important in certain industries and certain parts of the country, but their numbers are in decline. Unions are desperate– they are spending millions of dollars per year in the political arena alone attempting to influence both legislation and regulation that would make it easier for them to force employees into unions, says ‘Phillip Wilson’.

They are also engaging in costly pro-union corporate campaigns, both in real dollars and in public relations, and that can have a detrimental long-term impact on the viability of a business. The final outcome of this latest chapter in union versus non-union work force’ debate will undoubtedly be significant for U.S. labor and the ability of the companies they work for to compete in today’s global market…

In the article Actually, Americans Do Support Government Union Reform by Emily Ekins writes: Over the past decades, union membership has plummeted from 20.1% in 1982 to 11.8% by 2011. Back in 1982, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 51% of non-unionized workers wanted to join a union. However, by 2011 a plurality of Americans say they prefer not to be in a union.

A fast-paced, upwardly mobile, and increasingly globalize economy has shown the benefits of non-union membership. Individuals can be compensated for their own work ethic and merit, rather than be tied to the production of their co-workers. Today, only 6.9% of private sector workers are unionized whereas, 37% of public employees are unionized, five times higher than the private sector.

In the private sector, expectations for compensation are adjusted with work performance and economic and social changes; whereas, much of the public sector continued using a collective bargaining model; promising retirement benefits in the form of guaranteed pension payments and using collectivized negotiation over pay and health care benefits. Not only has union membership declined, but so has favorability toward labor unions in general.

Favorability toward labor unions has steadily declined from a high of 75% favorable in October 1953 to 52% in 2011. An August 2011 Gallup poll found 55% of Americans expect unions to become weaker in the future and 67% do not think this is a bad thing. In fact, the same Gallup poll found 42% would like to see labor unions have less influence in the U. S., up from 28% in 2007.

Americans also tend to believe unions have a negative impact on the economy and global competitiveness. Gallup finds a plurality (49%) believe labor unions mostly hurt the U. S. economy in general. Although a significant number (35%) of Americans think labor unions did little to impact the economy in 2011, a plurality (40%) thinks labor unions did more to hurt the economy. Likewise, a plurality (36%) also think labor unions have a negative effect on U.S. companies’ ability to compete globally.

In the article “Reinventing Trade Unionism for the 21st Century by Bill Fletcher Jr., Kate Bronfenbrenner, and Donna Dewitt write: The economic and political changes over the last thirty years, both in U.S. and globally, have resulted in far more hostile environment for labor unions. In this context, contrary to the spirit of Philip Randolph’s notion– that the essence of trade unionism is social uplift; the labor union movement is rarely looked upon, today, as voice of progress and innovation, or is it a consistent ally of progressive social movements.

It’s not just that organized labor declined, as a percentage of the workforce, since 1955; or that it carried out unfocused growth, which has evolved into no growth; or that it emphasized servicing its current members, rather than planting the seeds for future growth. It’s that organized labor looks at itself as separate and apart from the rest of the working class and, for that matter, does not see itself as the champion of workers and their communities, but rather a mechanism for advancing the interests of those it currently represents.

For organized labor, in the U.S., the path away from oblivion must begin with the recognition of the vastly different situation that the working class faces in the early 21st century from what existed even twenty years ago. The current situation necessitates a new approach to strategy, tactics, and fundamentally the vision of labor unionism… Over recent years, it has become fashan the production of new mission statements, but instead, rests on the necessity to rethink the relationship of unions to its; members, employers, and government and communities…

Today’s world of individual employment contracts, performance related pay schemes… and the so-called new workplace; labor unions are often regarded as anachronistic obstacles preventing success of the market economy. As collective voluntary organizations that represent employees in the workplace, it’s argued labor unions no longer serve a useful purpose. While overall membership decline has slowed in recent years, the vast majority of younger workers and new labor market entrants are not joining unions.

The growth in short-term employment contracts, agency labor and other forms of  atypical employment, and the trend among firms to outsource their non-core activities to other firms, have made it increasingly hard for unions to organize and create resilient labor standards across industries. These new realities make it all the more important for unions to reassess their current positions and develop new innovative organizing and bargaining strategies.

According to James Sherk; in today’s knowledge economy, collective representation makes little sense, where many employers want employees with individual insights and abilities… jobs of the future depend on the creativity and skills of individual employees. On the other hand, there are many jobs that require union type representation, in order to; maintain minimum work standards, protect workers from unfairness and mistreatment…

The workplace is changing, which is being brought about by social and economic forces worldwide, such as; globalization, technology, e-commerce, Internet… and this mandates a more enlightened union leadership and policy makers. Unions must begin to realize that unionism, as we know it, will not rebound and that an expanded role for a worker voice in the private sector can occur only if there is adoption and experimentation with new forms of worker representation.

At that point, politicians, business leaders, and organized labor must begin to rally public support for alternative forms of unionism and workplace governance. Absent such a consensus, we are likely to see continued marginalization of unions in the private sector and increasing governmental regulation of labor markets…

The twentieth century will be remembered as a time when millions of working fought for safe workplaces; freedom to organize; end to abusive child labor; health insurance and retirement benefits; earn a decent wage;  and, built the greatest middle class in human history. ~Bill Clinton