Unions Have Problems

I’m not anti union in principal. I’ve had extensive dealings with unions. I was part of one, negotiated with them on a variety of occasions, handled grievances and established positive working relationships with union representatives and stewards as well as being appointed, by a union, to sit on a pension fund board. You can’t ignore the contribution unions have made to defining the modern workspace and establishing clear red lines related to what is and is not acceptable behavior by companies.

Unions, however, have problems. Despite committed local leadership union membership has fallen to its lowest level since the 1950’s. The private sector is only 6.6% unionized and public employee union membership fell by over 400,000 in the past year. Common knowledge has it that Wisconsin’s political victory led to the decline; that is true, but just the tip of the iceberg as union membership has been declining for decades.

Union members, outside of the core activists, represent growing points of discontent. They see massive unfunded pension liabilities and depleted strike funds as political spending increases with declining impact on union political goals. There are trillions in unfunded union pension liabilities as billions are spent on political activity. Not all union members agree with the political positions unions have taken, especially over the past five years.

Apprentice programs have, in large measure, gone the way of the Dodo bird inhibiting the ability to internally satisfy open positions and impacting the degree of loyalty inherent within vertically integrated union programs.

A critical dynamic seldom identified is the education that unions have bestowed on business over time. It became clear to business that to offer employees an environment essentially consistent with union workers absent the presence of the union was good business. It became clear that to essentially equalize compensation absent union work rules was a good deal for business and employees. The fact is that increases in compensation were more than made up for based on employer orientated work rule flexibility. Increases in individual productivity as compared to declining union membership over the past decade are proof enough of how this dynamic played out. As things evolved business learned that if you did not deserve a union based on your treatment of employees the odds of being unionized were minimal.

Tactics are also in question. From the outside looking in it appears that union tactics have not changed in decades. While the world changed at a geometric pace, union approaches to negotiating, organizing and politics did not. In an age where the pace of change is awesome, it seems like the same old, same old from unions.

Politics is also an issue for unions. They are so firmly tied to the far left 25% that general credibility is in jeopardy. The powerful rhetoric deployed by unions can be off putting. Their demand for political payback has been aggressive and public. Add to that the perception of union political power and access to senior policy makers when less than 10% of the working population is represented by unions and the potential for further erosion of positive perception exists.

Unions must rethink their role, tactics and agenda. To continue to proceed as they always have will result in a slow fall to irrelevancy, artificially supported by powerful political friends but immaterial to workers. 14.4 million Union members is significant and will continue to be; but does not represent keys to the union future.