Unions need to reinvent themselves

COMMENTARY Jobs and Labor

Unions need to reinvent themselves

Sep 2, 2013 2 min read

Research Fellow, Labor Economics

As research fellow in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation, James Sherk researched ways to promote competition and mobility.

Conservatives often criticize unions for being out of touch. Now even the president of the AFL-CIO agrees. In a speech earlier this year Richard Trumka acknowledged unions are "failing to meet the needs of America's workers by every critical measure." Unfortunately his proposed "solutions" appear unlikely to succeed.

The AFL-CIO first tried getting rid of secret ballots in union elections, making it easier to pressure workers into joining. Congress killed that idea. Trumka now proposes working more closely with organizations to elect union-friendly politicians. But his members tell pollsters unions already spend too much on politics. Spending more seems unlikely to boost membership.

Unions would do better to reinvent themselves to appeal to 21st-century workers. Their 1930s collective-bargaining model no longer meets many employees' needs. It implicitly assumes one contract should cover everyone. In a knowledge economy, this makes little sense.

Today's workers want - and expect - employers to recognize their unique skills and abilities. But general representation ignores individual contributions. So why would a website designer, or PR consultant, or health-care specialist want a collective contract? Increasingly they don't; union membership has fallen to just one in 15 workers in the private sector.

The labor movement should change with the economy. Reinvented unions - call them employee associations - could meet many needs in today's workplace. Several principles should guide such associations.

Most important, they would be voluntary. Workers could join or not. Such freedom would force the associations to serve their members effectively. Unions have atrophied in part because, in many states, they can force workers at unionized companies to pay dues. Imagine if Apple could prevent its current iPhone customers from switching to Android. How much would Apple spend on R&D? What would happen to their product quality? Captive customers reduce the incentive to innovate - for unions as well as businesses.

Employee associations should also avoid politics. Unions spend over a billion dollars on politics each election cycle - virtually all on liberal Democrats. This activism turns off potential supporters. Remaining nonpolitical avoids alienating workers.

Currently unions make companies they organize less competitive - as General Motors learned the hard way. Employee associations would eschew inefficient work rules and unwieldy collective contracts. Instead they would focus on adding value and helping employees build their careers.

They could help workers improve their skills through job training and mentorship programs (as many construction unions currently do). They could help workers land their next job with networking opportunities. They could provide employees advice on investing their 401(k)s for retirement. Many workers would voluntarily pay for such services.

A particularly valuable service would be certifying workplace skills. Employee associations could independently test and certify workers' abilities - giving them leverage to command higher pay at their next job.

Polls show few workers want to join unions - as they now exist. Unions never adapted to the modern workplace. But a re-envisioned labor movement could appeal to both employees and employers. Employee associations that helped workers upgrade their skills, manage job transitions, and certify quality could be a boon to workers and the economy. Unfortunately, rather than help their members get ahead, today's union bosses remain out of touch.

- James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.

Originally distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune wire service.