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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  • deniswinkle1

    Mandela's Crucial Lesson for America -- And The Republicans Who
    Never Learn Posted: 12/13/2013 1:49 pm

    Sanction is a depravity that went from sea to sea. First it sought out other Nations! Now it's stalking me.

    Don’t ever think the out sourcing of American Job and Manufacturing Base can’t be defined as “Sanction”. Don’t ever think getting rid of Social Security, Medicaid and Retirement Plans can’t be defined as “Sanction”! Don’t ever think getting rid of student loans and grants can’t be defined as “Sanction”! Don’t ever think out lawing unions can’t be defined as “Sanction”! Laid against all the good Our American Family has provided for one another, right from the forming of Our Republic. Should we say “thank you” to the globalization of the neocons. ALEC and APEC. People like Dick Cheney in a tea party with neoconservatives. A political ideology characterized by an emphasis on a free-market government and an interventionist foreign policy.

    It all started with NAFTA. Turned over too a “non-government” enterprise called APEC

    APEC currently has 21 members, including most “countries” with a coastline on the Pacific Ocean. However, the criterion for membership is that the member is a
    separate economy, rather than a “state”. As a result, APEC uses the term member economies rather than member countries to refer to its members. Each economy nominates up to three members from the private sector to ABAC.

    APEC has been “criticized” for promoting free trade agreements that
    would trammel national and local laws, which regulate and ensure labor rights,
    environmental protection and safe and affordable access to medicine.

    Trammel means: something that limits a person's freedom and wellbeing. Coming to a government near you.

  • deniswinkle1

    Shall we blame government as young Americans sour on personal debt today? Or should they sour on the bought politician that came to represent it! Through all those Lawyers and CEOs of corporate special interest over the Past 30 years! Honest governing isn’t the problem. The on going Agenda of corporate philosophy and extortion is. Given your tax dollars through “government contracts”! NAFTA is now owned by Big Corporation. As Government contracts procured outside influence giving corporate organizations the power and influence too our govern-ship. What Ayn Rand called the “Robber Barron”!

    Who benefits from Chapter Ten of the NAFTA?

    “Any American company” interested in exporting products or
    services to the Canadian or Mexican public sector can benefit from Chapter Ten
    of the NAFTA. U.S. suppliers of oil and gas field equipment and services, heavy electrical equipment, communications and computer systems, electronics, steel,
    pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and construction services are among the
    principal beneficiaries.

    How can Chapter Ten of the NAFTA help
    my company?

    Chapter Ten of the NAFTA covers virtually all federal government contracting agencies in the three countries, as well as a significant number of government-controlled enterprises.

    The APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) was created by the APEC Economic Leaders in November 1995 with the aim of providing advice to
    the APEC Economic Leaders on ways to achieve the “Bogor Goals”. Each economy nominates up to three members from the private sector to ABAC. These business leaders represent a wide range of industry sectors. As APEC has been “criticized” for promoting free trade agreements! That would “trammel” national and local laws, which regulate and ensure labor rights, environmental protection and safe and affordable access to medicine.

    Trammel means: something that limits a person's freedom and well being.

    APEC's Three Pillars: To meet the Bogor Goals, APEC carries out work in three main areas:

    1. Trade and Investment

    2. Business Facilitation

    3. Economic and Technical

    APEC currently has 21 members, including most countries with a coastline on the Pacific Ocean. However, the criterion for membership is that the member is a “separate economy”, rather than a “state”. State is defined as “An area forming part of a federal country with its own government and legislature and control over most of its own internal affairs”. As a result, APEC uses the term “member economies” rather than member countries to refer to its
    members. And there yah go. Members are not obligated to their “Sovereign Nation”!

    As we note The TPSEP was previously known as the Pacific Three Closer Economic Partnership (P3-CEP), its negotiations launched on the “sidelines” of 2002 [non-transparency] And now The transpacific free trade agreement of
    non-transparency. In the devaluation of Our American Family. In the Subverting
    of Our Constitution. That corporations are people too. A living breathing soul.


    Foxconn's plants in Asia are massive, employing as many as 190,000 workers at
    a single factory by some estimates, many of whom live at the plants as well as
    work there. The company has been criticizedfor work conditions and for the large number of workers at some plants who have
    committed suicide.

  • geo brecke

    Set aside your beliefs... set aside your opinion of right or wrong. This is a perception thing..
    Now the question: Will people look at Union Picket Lines differently when they think that the only reason they need deal with health care and the IRS on the same form is because of unions?
    I'm waiting for the picket line at my Grocers, there's a chance the public might be far more sympathetic to the store owner's cause.
    Will there be other picketers in front of the union line reminding the public of that?
    I'll be watching to see..

  • Remed8djr

    Unions, as they exist today, are dying. Union leadership needs to step back, take a serious look at what is going on at the open shops around their region and the globe and work towards softening some of the hard and fast lines in the bargaining agreements. Spelling out task by task what an employee can do and bargaining into decisions that should be management decisions is not the way to go it in the future. 

    By softening things a little they can allow a company to compete more and to better ensure good jobs and benefits for their members. Isn't that supposed to be the real purpose of the union?

    A recent item where I live was the teachers union pushing for a 20 child limit in classrooms. As this is a major city, it would have resulted in the construction of several additional schools to meet the classroom requirements. They would have reduced average class size by 3 students.

    A patrolman's union and a firefighters union pushed for a dollar an hour pay increase to submit to drug testing. This would have cost the taxpayers a ridiculous amount of money.

    A city employees union prevented prisoners from cleaning and maintaining a park on a river that had been closed for 3 years due to budget woes of the city. The park remains closed.

    All poor decisions by the union business agents, all bad press, all for no clearly good purpose.

    Union leadership needs to choose their battles wisely if you want to win the war.

  • Art Fewell

    I've been really disheartened by the bad PR that unions have been getting. There has always been an ebb and flow and will always be, they have been bad, they have been good, and today there is a lot of need for something more modern to fill the role they once held. Despite their immensely important contributions to society I always felt they should have been unnecessary if the government was doing its job right and looking out for its citizens like its supposed to. What I hope will arise today is the democratization of the business model. Businesses have been seeking for years to create a system that could effectively incorporate employee feedback and have a more engaged relationship - and there were a lot of attempts at mass-marketing six-sigma variants and early stage crowdsourcing models but none worked well. But today the tools are now here to build more vibrant social communities, drive employee feedback and engagement and create new possibilities for BI and new opportunities to drive more innovative employee compensation models.At the end of the day businesses have been long focused simply on staying alive and staying dominant, which is ironic considered how most have fought against sustainability and opted for short term wins. But I think this is a fad that will pass, investors are becoming aware and noone wants an unhealthy and unstable economy. To really create a sustainable model as with any governance there must be a system that incorporates democracy. The employees in an org really do make all the difference and effective sustainable models can only be most effective with engagement and democratization. The fact is, cities live on while business after business dies, its time for a new governance model. I would love to see a step at this, if there were one democratically appointed CXO, perhaps a chief culture officer. I know there are probably a lot of good models already for this I havent followed this area very closely, but this is are is in desperate need of innovation. 

  • Dylan Bartlett

    Unions have received a bad press of late but can still play a vital roll if enough people take part. A union is only as strong as it's members. As an individual the 'art of negotiation' is not going to ensure safe working conditions, provide education, training and legal and benevolence support should things take a drastic turn for the worse. Unions today provide all kinds of support from loans to affordable internet access. 

    Collectively we have a much stronger voice than as individuals to ensure that we all receive fair pay and conditions. A race to the bottom, undercutting each other and forcing the devaluation of skills is something that can be prevented if we stick together and through Union membership insist on appropriate remuneration for the skills and expertise we have to offer. 

  • Chris Kelly

    It is good business to take away bargaining rights like in Illinois and other states. Boeing is in the process of no longer offering pensions for all new workers. I worked for unions and was treated well and paid well. I worked for many non union companies and there was always a few ways they could have improved on to at least be competitive with the union equivalent. I worked for one company that  fired 70 workers over a four week period for talking about a union. That company which is a major program provider consistently chews up 90% of their new employees, employees who have no one looking out for their best interest and no protection from ridiculous and frivolous metrics. While they did "offer" benefits which resemble the benefits you would see with a union, you will never see them especially in a state like Washington that may fire an employee for ANY reason whatsoever. It will always be good business for most businesses to cut employee costs and destroy workers unions.
    It a joke when you say that legislation and the courts are the best recourse for workers with "low education" and "low skills". The courts are ruling against collective barging every chance they get. SPEEA Boeing's engineers union fits in neither category yet they have very little collective barging because of Boeing's out sourcing proclivity to peoples of other nations thanks to the efforts of our elected officials.
    What's next is there will be more and more employees being abused, they will go to court to get rights and benefits restored and these rights and benefits will be much less than union benefits.

  • Anya Kamenetz

    I didn't say that courts were a good recourse for low-wage workers--Dr. Carre's point is that they are the best option left. As for legislation, single payer health care and a higher minimum wage would go a long way toward establishing protections that unions used to negotiate for on behalf of their members. The US is the only industrialized nation with employer-based health care, meaning unions carry a lot of responsibility for negotiating health coverage on behalf of employees.  

  • Geoffrey

    Nice read Anya,

    I completely agree that each of us has to learn the art of negotiation.

    Geoffrey C