The future of unions: A primer

Union membership is on a steady decline: only about 12 percent of the workforce is unionized, compared to 20 percent in 1983 and higher numbers in earlier years before statistics were tracked.

Numerous theories have been proposed for the decline:

  • Less need for unions due to government interventions like the ones listed in a previous post
  • Increasing number of immigrant workers with a cultural ambiguity toward unions and/or a willingness to work below union wages
  • Increasingly aggressive corporate anti-union tactics, including moving jobs overseas or, in the case of Walmart, closing departments or stores that vote to unionize
  • Increased apathy toward unions as a result of fewer households promoting union ideals to their children
  • Perception of unions as corrupt after scandals involving kickbacks, mob connections, misuse of dues, and pension mishandling in a few private unions
  • Anti-union legislation like “right to work” laws that give incentives for workers not to join unions
  • Less recruiting of new members by unions for financial or political reasons (unionizing large numbers of minorities, for example, could threaten the power of white union leaders)
  • Lack of public relations savvy and strong spokespeople to present a positive image of unions to the public
  • Perception of union workers as lazy and/or overpaid because of a few overly generous or overly protective clauses in some contracts.

Theorists often focus on one as the cause, but all of them contribute to the problem. In addition to addressing those issues, I recommend that unions take these steps:

1. Get rid of the “us versus them” mentality

Two unions in different sectors have shown it’s possible to put aside past grievances and work together:

In October 2009, teachers and administrators in New Haven, Connecticut, agreed to a new contract that included language making it easier for the administrators to fire bad teachers and reward good ones. The contract was spurred in part by a change from the top: Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “This is the time to shed the old conflicts and come together. This is the time to forge a new path for our public schools and change public education for our changing world.”

She had her union members’ support. The previous year they had been polled on this question: “When your union deals with issues affecting teaching quality and teachers’ rights, which should be the higher priority—working for professional teaching standards and good teaching, or defining the job rights of teachers who face disciplinary action?” AFT members chose teaching standards as being more important by a margin of 4 to 1.

Similarly, in one of General Electric’s largest manufacturing plants, union workers and managers worked together to receive the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Voluntary Protection Program Star status, granted to only about 550 of the country’s 6 million work sites. The Erie, Pa., facility – which makes locomotives and employs 5,600 people – is one of the largest union sites to receive the distinction. Workers and managers put aside previous tensions and worked together to develop ideas for a safer workplace.

The result? Injuries dropped by 80 percent, GE’s bill for workers’ comp dropped, and productivity quadrupled, with the plant setting records for product output. “The relationship we have with the union leadership is the cornerstone of our entire system,” said Gary Quinlan, manager of human resources and production operation.

2. Take individual responsibility.

Members of large unions with national membership need to look at their individual, local situations when working with employers. For example, workers at Kohler, a large plumbing company in Wisconsin, were making some of the highest wages in the country for that sector, to the point where the company was concerned about its viability. The company’s flagship plant employs 4,000 members of United Auto Workers Local 833.

The result of months of negotiation was a five-year contract that asked workers to freeze their wages and contribute more toward healthcare premiums. National UAW leaders disapproved of the plan. But UAW Local 833 voted to accept it anyway, 62 percent to 38 percent.

UAW Local 833 president Dave Bergene, who attended protests in Madison earlier this year against Scott Walker’s plan to strip public union workers of collective bargaining rights, said, “We did that deal with collective bargaining…We don’t mind negotiating healthcare premiums.”

Even members of small unions have a responsibility to speak out if the agenda being driven by union leaders doesn’t match their own. With the negative political attention being given to unions, members must examine their own contracts to make sure they are above reproach in every way.

3. Expand unions’ purpose and visibility

Most unions focus on contract negotiation and political participation to improve the lives of their members. But in “Making Unions Matter Again,” author Jane McAlevey says unions need to evolve out of the mindset that sharing links through electronic media constitutes meaningful dialogue. For example, many union workers are caught up in the housing crisis, but she says union leaders have taken the attitude “That’s someone else’s problem. We only do workers’ issues in the workplace.” She calls for more direct action:

Unions need to start connecting with workers face-to-face through house parties and worksite and home visits to ask what’s keeping them up at night. Then unions should plan direct actions with workers that respond to the issues facing them. … The housing crisis ties directly to the wage crisis, which ties directly to the jobs crisis. … Union organizers—paid staff and rank-and-file workers— should begin to take to the doors and begin to meet hundreds of thousands of workers and galvanize a movement to demand economic justice. If unions do this with unorganized workers and together they win campaigns, it’s more likely these same workers will consider unionization to be a good option in their work life. With a ratio of one organizer for 1,000 organizing conversations in neighborhoods nationwide, just 2,000 union organizers could engage 2 million people—and that’s plenty to create an untenable crisis that the elite will have to deal with.

4. Realize that it’s about perception.

Some people with anti-union sentiments are making an honest mistake, one I made myself. When I started working as a news reporter fresh out of college, the newsroom employees weren’t unionized, but the composing room and press workers were. Our deadline was noon. This was back in the days when the composing process was done by hand – paper strips were pasted onto a large sheet of paper based on a sketch given to composers by the newsroom staff.

I needed a last-minute change on a story. I went back to the composing room to notify the composer assigned to the page.

He wasn’t there.

He was taking his break right before deadline, the most crucial time of the day. His union contract specified that he was entitled to a 15-minute break and that no one could dictate when he took it. So he routinely took it when he was most needed so someone else would pull his weight.

I made a mistake, immediately forming a negative impression of all unions based on an isolated incident. That bad impression stuck with me for years. I didn’t stop to think about how all the other union workers performed their jobs in an efficient and dedicated manner. I didn’t think about how unions prevented many employees in workplaces across the country from being unfairly dismissed or underpaid or harassed. I didn’t consider the contributions unions made toward workplace safety and equality.

It’s an easy mistake to make. But seeing how easy it is to create a negative impression of unions, union members need to make other workers realize the value of unity. If union members don’t garner more support in the face of the current political firestorm, unions as we know them will cease to exist.

References

Baldwin, Robert E. “Labor Unions are in Decline.” Rpt. in Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 22-28. Print.

Fitch, Robert. “Labor Unions Are Corrupt and Exploit Workers.” Rpt. in Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 36-47. Print.

McAlevey, Jane. “Making Unions Matter Again.” Nation 291.25 (2010): 12-14. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Sarkis, Karen. “Safety in the union shop.” Occupational Hazards 62.3 (2000): 45. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Schachter, Ron. “Toward a More Perfect Union.” District Administration 46.3 (2010): 28. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Wagner, Viqi. “Introduction.” Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. Print.

—“Chapter Preface: How Have immigration and Globalization Affected Labor Unions?” Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 59-61. Print.

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm

http://blogs.forbes.com/monteburke/2011/02/23/is-herbert-kohlers-union-deal-a-possible-blueprint-for-wisconsin/

http://blogs.forbes.com/rickungar/2011/02/21/public-employee-unions-failing-badly-at-public-relations/

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