How to reinvent the labor unions

Posted Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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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 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 healthcare 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 as they so choose. Unlike unions, employee associations would not try to get workers who decline their services fired.

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.

Captive customers reduce the incentive to innovate — for unions as well as businesses. Voluntary membership forces organizations to continuously improve service.

Employee associations should also avoid politics. Unions spend more than a billion dollars on politics each election cycle — virtually all on liberal Democrats.

This activism turns off potential supporters. Many employees want taxes lowered. Others believe abortion takes innocent life. Still others want their children to go to charter schools.

Why would they join an organization that opposes these views? 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.

Few workers today stay with one company their entire careers. By their early 40s the typical employee has worked for 11 different companies. Employee associations could help workers navigate the economy instead of remaining tied to one firm. They could help workers improve their skills through job training and mentorship programs.

They could help workers land their next job with networking opportunities.

Many workers would voluntarily pay for such services.

A particularly valuable service would be certifying workplace skills. Employers value abilities like problem solving, business writing and critical thinking. Workers have few ways to credibly communicate these skills to new employers.

Employee associations could independently test and certify workers’ abilities — giving them leverage to command higher pay at their next job.

Employee associations could also screen out slackers. Today unions often protect lazy employees.

What if employee associations restricted membership to industrious workers? What if membership signaled drive and diligence? Businesses would actively recruit those members and willingly pay them premium wages.

Employee associations that helped workers upgrade their skills, manage job transitions and certify quality could be a boon to workers and the economy.

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

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