For decades, “union man” meant hard hats, lunch pails and blue-collar jobs for millions of American autoworkers, machinists and coal miners. A union job meant good pay and benefits, but it also promised lots of hard work and, in many cases, a real possibility of being injured.
Back in the 1950s, when U.S. manufacturing dominated the world, one of every three American workers carried a union card. Unions were taken for granted as a part of American life. Their leaders could even be bipartisan when the occasion required working with political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
Not today. Big Labor represents far fewer workers. Its leaders are closely tied to the Democratic Party. Half of the nation’s unionists are white-collar government employees, not private sector workers.
Union membership has been sliding for years, with only 14.5 million people now in a union, or about 11.3 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 6.7 percent of all private sector jobs are unionized, compared with 35.3 percent of the public sector. Organized labor has lost 3 million members since 1984. As recently as 1980, there were 20 million union members.
Big Labor’s future is anything but assured. It faces the very real possibility of dying out, becoming little more than a few chapters in the history books. But what will the unions of the future look like? As long as people have jobs, there will be a need to address their employment concerns. The question is, how?
Strong indicators show a move away from the rigid, top-down model created under the 1935 Wagner Act — which assumed unions always represented workers’ best interests. In place of the old model will likely be a new, democratic approach that gives individual workers more options for representation while requiring greater accountability and transparency from their representatives.
Experiments are already under way. Governors in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin have brought variations on right-to-work laws to the Rust Belt, limiting compulsory unionism — something unthinkable just a decade ago. Detroit’s bankruptcy has created a major precedent for local governments to restructure their union contracts, and make them affordable for taxpayers already stretched by the demands of government spending.
Labor law experts are eagerly watching the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn, due this summer, which could rewrite the rules on public-sector unions. Republican members of Congress have proposed the Employee Rights Act to reform union elections by guaranteeing secret ballots and requiring periodic recertification votes. Such reforms would require unions to represent only those who want to belong, forcing them to become more service-oriented.
“We are already heading this way,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the Washington Examiner. “Unions have to be relevant and provide a service. They cannot automatically assume that people are going to join and be supportive.”
Walker said most unions oppose things like merit pay because they erode worker solidarity. Unions also defend poor performers on the job.
“One thing I learned when I worked at the county level that frustrated public sector workers all of the time is that they thought they were carrying the weight for other workers who weren’t living up their responsibility,” Walker said.
Heritage Foundation labor expert James Sherk argues that it makes no sense in a highly fluid, mobile workforce to tie union membership to specific jobs.
“It would make a lot more sense to have a more service-oriented model in which the union dues buy services (for workers) that come irrespective of where you work,” Sherk said.
Another possibility would be to allow employer-backed worker representative groups. The National Labor Relations Act doesn’t allow such groups unless workers also have a traditional union.
There are also countervailing trends like the European-style “micro unions” being encouraged by Barack Obama’s appointees on the National Labor Relations Board. Big Labor has started to experiment with new models that aren’t based on collective bargaining or full representation. But little has come of such efforts.
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This is a first of a series on unions. The next article will appear Friday.