Unions Are Dying. What Comes Next?

Union membership has fallen to a record low yet again. Just over 1 in 10 workers are in a traditional union. If you look at private sector workers only, the number is just 6.6 percent.

Love them or hate them, in the 19th and 20th centuries labor unions helped establish a middle class, ensured professional standards for some industries, and secured access for all workers to benefits like the weekend, the minimum wage, the 8-hour day, and maternity leave. They also helped workers learn, share information, and turn out the vote.

That was then. Now, bargaining agreements don't make sense for workers who are self-employed, work on contract, are entrepreneurs, or change jobs frequently—the average job tenure has fallen to 4.4 years. And traditional unions, to put it bluntly, are no longer associated with excellence in the workforce. Rules that dictate exactly how, where, and when workers can do their jobs don't fit the age of flexible hours, global markets, ever-changing job roles, and telecommuting, either for employers or employees. In increasingly flat hierarchies and team-based work, even the basic division between "labor" and "management" doesn't make a lot of sense in many contexts.

The question to be asked now is, how will some of these same jobs, of representation and negotiation for better pay and benefits, and of information sharing, networking, and political advocacy, be done by organizations that succeed unions?

Here are some possible alternatives on the horizon:

Freelancers Union

The Freelancers Union, numbering 200,000 members nationwide, provides health benefits for its members and also does political advocacy, networking, and information sharing. People who file 1099s instead of, or in addition to 1040s are now one-third of the workforce.

Happy Paternalism

Companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods are vocally opposed to unions, yet profess lots of interest in their employees' welfare and happiness and use data to track it. They call their employees "partners" and "team members." B corporations, a special legal designation, pledge to consider employees' interests in decisionmaking.

Is there substance behind the talk? "There's two things you could look at," says Francoise Carre, a labor economics expert at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "The first is compensation and benefits—are they true to their motto around the basic things of employment? And the next layer is, are they true to their word in terms of participation, access to redress at work?" Carre found in a field study that workers at Whole Foods fared little better in terms of their schedule, pay, and how they felt about their work than at a regular grocery store.

An Entrepreneurial Economy

Startups share risk with their employees. Employees, as owners, take a completely different attitude toward productivity and work rules from that found in old-line unions. Combine with some innovations like coworking and you have a new set of rules for the 21st century, where workers as free agents set their prices and bargain. The logic of this world is ruthless—if you don't have the skills you can't compete. Gina Neff, a communications professor at the University of Washington, has coined the term "venture labor" to describe the calculated and glorified risks that workers take on.

The Networked Union

The emerging reality will be a blend of columns A), B), and C). Depending on where you are in the economy, and your skills, your experience of representation may be very different. For the most vulnerable among us, with low education and low skills, legislation and the courts are probably still the best recourse to improve wages and benefits, says Carre.

But there is a role for workers' organizations too. It's just that that role is changing. "We're going to have to evolve past the idea that the only thing a union is, is a collective bargaining agent at a workplace," says Freelancers Union founder Sara Horowitz. "There will be a lot more experimentation. You can see the shape of the future already, not just in the Freelancers' Union but the growth of the peer economy."

Today networks help us find a job (LinkedIn), a place to crash (Airbnb), fund our projects (Kickstarter), or give us a place to perform and publicize our work (Behance, GitHub). Coworking spaces give startups and businesses a cooperative edge along with a desk. Websites like Glassdoor give workers important leverage in knowing about who to work for and how much to charge.

Tomorrow, crowdfunded workers' networks could perform all of the above functions and more to serve as the union of the future.

[Image: Flickr user Karunakar Rayker]

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