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September 16, 2014

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Reinventing unions for 21st century

Conservatives often criticize unions for being out of touch. Now even the president of the AFL-CIO agrees. In a speech earlier this year, Richard Trumka acknowledged unions are “failing to meet the needs of America’s workers by every critical measure.” Unfortunately, his proposed “solutions” appear unlikely to succeed.

The AFL-CIO first tried getting rid of secret ballots in union elections, making it easier to pressure workers into joining. Congress killed that idea. Trumka now proposes working more closely with organizations to elect union-friendly politicians. But his members tell pollsters unions already spend too much on politics. Spending more seems unlikely to boost membership.

Unions would do better to reinvent themselves to appeal to 21st-century workers. Their 1930s collective bargaining model no longer meets many employees’ needs. It implicitly assumes one contract should cover everyone. In a knowledge economy, this makes little sense.

Today’s workers want — and expect — employers to recognize their unique skills and abilities. But general representation ignores individual contributions. So why would a website designer, or PR consultant, or health care specialist want a collective contract? Increasingly, they don’t; union membership has fallen to 1 in 15 workers in the private sector.

The labor movement should change with the economy. Reinvented unions — call them employee associations — could meet many needs in today’s workplace. Several principles should guide such associations.

Most important, they would be voluntary. Workers could join or not as they so choose. Unlike unions, employee associations would not try to get workers who decline their services fired. Workers should have the right to choose.

Such freedom would force the associations to serve their members effectively. Unions have atrophied in part because, in many states, they can force workers at unionized companies to pay dues. Imagine if Apple could prevent its current iPhone customers from switching to Android. How much would Apple spend on R&D? What would happen to their product quality? Captive customers reduce the incentive to innovate — for unions as well as businesses. Voluntary membership forces organizations to continuously improve their service.

Employee associations should also avoid politics. Unions spend more than $1 billion on politics each election cycle — virtually all on liberal Democrats. This activism turns off potential supporters. Many employees want taxes lowered. Others believe abortion takes innocent life. Still others want their children to go charter schools. Why would they join an organization that opposes these views? Remaining nonpolitical avoids alienating workers.

Currently, unions make companies they organize less competitive — as General Motors learned the hard way. Employee associations would eschew inefficient work rules and unwieldy collective contracts. Instead, they would focus on adding value and helping employees build their careers.

Few workers today stay with one company their entire careers. By their early 40s, the typical employee has worked for 11 companies. Employee associations could help workers navigate the economy instead of remaining tied to one firm.

They could help workers improve their skills through job training and mentorship programs (as many construction unions currently do). They could help workers land their next job with networking opportunities. They could provide employees advice on investing their 401(k)s for retirement. Many workers would voluntarily pay for such services.

A particularly valuable service would be certifying workplace skills. Employers value abilities such as problem solving, business writing and critical thinking. Workers have few ways to credibly communicate these skills to new employers. Employee associations could independently test and certify workers’ abilities — giving them leverage to command higher pay at their next job.

Employee associations could also screen out slackers. Today, unions often protect lazy employees. Remember the Chrysler employees fired for smoking pot on the job? The UAW got them reinstated. This drives employers nuts. But what if employee associations restricted membership to industrious workers? What if membership signaled drive and diligence? Businesses would actively recruit those members and willingly pay them premium wages.

Polls show few workers want to join unions — as they now exist. Unions never adapted to the modern workplace. But a re-envisioned labor movement could appeal to employees and employers. Employee associations that helped workers upgrade their skills, manage job transitions and certify quality could be a boon to workers and the economy. Unfortunately, rather than help their members get ahead, today’s union bosses remain out of touch.

James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.

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