September 14, 2006

September 14, 2006 | Commentary on

Seeking a more perfect union

If your pastor supports Candidate A in the local dog-catcher election, does he have the right to use money you put in the collection plate to support that candidate - even if you prefer Candidate B?

Of course not. But if your union supports Candidate A, in most cases, your dues will end up in the campaign war chest of Candidate A. Unless you live in a state with paycheck protection laws.

Unions spend 70 percent of the dues they collect on activities other than organizing or bargaining on behalf of their members. That figure includes overhead and compensation for staff, to be sure. But it also includes the more than $60 million worth of union dues in the 2004 election cycle that went to support political candidates favored by union leaders.

Not all union members are happy with that. Indeed, give workers the chance to sign off on their union's contributions, and many say, "Not with my money."

Research into paycheck protection laws, which let union members approve using their dues money for political donations, shows that contributions from public-sector unions to state legislative candidates fall by nearly half when such laws are in effect.

Clearly, a large portion of the union rank and file does not support their bosses' political agenda, yet leaders continue to use dues money to push it anyway. They also use dues to pay themselves substantial salaries. For example, Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, makes $438,000 per year. His average member makes $47,000.

Union indifference to members' concerns may help explain why today, just one in eight American workers belongs to a union. That's the lowest rate since FDR was president.

Nonunion employees, by substantial margins, now tell pollsters they don't want to belong to a union and would vote against joining one if it was proposed. And when unions try to organize a workplace, they win the secret-ballot elections only 55 percent of the time, despite targeting only those workplaces most likely to unionize.

But it's more than just political activism and leaders' salaries that has turned off workers. Much of organized labor hasn't changed significantly since the 1950s, even as the economy has transformed radically. Unions have not responded to the new economy, with its smaller, leaner, more specialized companies and its dramatic rise in self-employment

Today, workers bargain for wages based on their own unique skills and talents, unlike the collective needs of the assembly-line workers of 50 years ago.

Information-age professions, such as researchers, Web-page developers and public-relations specialists, don't lend themselves to general representation or company-wide contracts. For decades following World War II, the average American worker put in 30 years with the same firm, then retired. Today, Americans change jobs four times, on average, in their first 10 years in the workforce.

Thus, workers reject the stasis promoted by many unions. Seniority-based promotion schedules, lifetime employment guarantees and an us-versus-management zeitgeist are out. Merit-based promotions, flexibility in working conditions and profit-sharing in its various forms are in.

Three out of four workers report they are satisfied with their opportunities for career advancement. They don't see management as the enemy. Organized labor must recognize this if it is to move forward. It is telling that nearly half of all union members now work for the government, the area of the economy least affected by the need for flexibility or competitiveness.

Unions can make a comeback - if they heed their members' priorities over that of leaders. They can spend less on political activism and administrative salaries and more on fighting for benefits that their workers actually find useful.

For example, many unions support defined-benefit pension plans that are difficult to transport when workers switch jobs. They should push for defined-contribution plans that follow workers as they move to new jobs, working to help companies structure the plans to best suit workers' needs and provide long-term savings advice for workers with little financial experience.

Unions reformed along these lines could make a powerful difference in the lives of American workers. Unions can recover their lost support, but only if they adapt to fit the needs of workers in the modern economy.

James Sherk is a policy analyst who specializes in macroeconomics in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Sherk Research Fellow, Labor Economics
Center for Data Analysis

First appeared in The Hill