Unions’ choice: Adapt or perish

By F. Vincent Vernuccio and Jeremy Lott
New York Daily News  - September 5, 2016

Union officials are not popular these days. A Rasmussen Reports poll of likely American voters in early August found 57% thought labor leaders were “out of touch” with their members. That figure may be worrying, but it gets worse. Only 20% thought union officials do a “good job” of representing members. Among current and former union members, the figures are almost as dire: 25% approve and 57% disapprove.

Fifty percent of those surveyed thought unions “have too much influence in America today.”

Unions have tried all kinds of ways to make it easier for them to organize new bargaining units: eliminating secret ballots and using “card-check” elections, co-opting businesses so workers are left without a real voice in the matter and investing heavily in partisan politics to unbalance the scales in their favor.

It isn’t working. The nongovernment unionization rate in America continues to fall. Last year, only 6.7% of private sector workers were unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; 50 years ago, more than 30% were. Without a course correction, organized labor will continue its long decline.

There has been one bright spot for unions, but it’s in the last place you’d probably expect. Union membership is actually growing faster in right-to-work states than in states where unions can get workers fired for not paying them. In fact, that may be not a fluke but a long-term trend.

Between 2005 and 2015, union membership grew in right-to-work states by 1.3% but fell in states were organized labor is strong by about 9%, according to a report by the Illinois Policy Institute.

Why would this be the case? Current United Auto Workers Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel dissented from the popular notion that right-to-work hurts unions. He told the Washington Post in 2014, “To me, (right to work) helps (unions). You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50% of you then all of you have to belong, whether you like it or not.’”

He’s right. Unions are going to have to get a whole lot more voluntary and responsive to workers and to lean less on government-granted privileges — bettering the unique conditions of individual members rather than one-size-fits-all contracts — if they want to have a future.

What does that mean in the real, unstable, fast-changing economy of today?

Many workers today want to be rewarded for what they personally can offer employers. More unions should embrace contracts like those of sports and entertainment unions that allow members to earn more based on how good they are at their profession instead of the current time clock seniority system.

Unions already offer skills training to workers. They ought to step those programs up. They also ought to create deals so that workers can more easily and cheaply purchase malpractice, disability and life insurance and get portable retirement benefits that workers can then take with them from job to job.

On this front, there’s cause for optimism in the deal struck between Uber and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. This five-year deal created the Independent Drivers Guild for New York City’s 35,000 Uber drivers.

Drivers aren’t forced to pay union dues or accept representation, but Guild membership gives them access to several benefits programs, including insurance and legal services. Drivers can use the Guild to help them deal with Uber management or they can go it alone, their call.

Workers get resources and representation if they want them; the union gets dues and a chance to prove its worth. Without the old antagonistic management-labor relationship, Uber may attract more drivers. The company is not bound to work with IAMAW, but is doing so because it makes good business sense.

To succeed in Uber’s industry, you need flexibility, personalization and the ability to meet customer demands on deadline. Unions should strive for these same goals to serve their members.


Vernuccio is the director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Lott is an adjunct scholar at the Center.

Copyright © 2016 Mackinac Center, all rights reserved.

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