How Unions Can Adapt for the 21st Century

For years union membership has been in decline. In 2012 union membership hit the lowest percentage of the American workforce since 1916. The union business model, based largely on industrial organizing efforts from the 1930s, does not appear to carry over well for today’s educated and transient workforce. It appears unions have not evolved to meet the needs of most modern workers.

There are several ways labor organizations could improve and become more responsive to the needs of workers. Unions should move away from their traditional operating formula and function more like professional associations, focusing on providing valuable services to members and representing the diverse set of needs of individual workers.

Some unions appear to be attempting to adapt, but are, unfortunately, only doubling down on the intimidation-based, one-size-fits-all union model of the past. These union front organizations, commonly known as worker centers, are using the same tactics of old to expand the power of existing unions, rather than creatively meeting the needs of modern workers.

In order to thrive, unions must move away from the old model based on coercion and monopolistic privileges granted by labor laws of the last century. The way for unions to grow and better serve workers is to shift to an operating principal based on voluntary association, where unions must compete for the hard-earned support of their members. Unions should only represent workers who desire to be represented and serve the unique needs of the skilled worker of the 21st century.

In many situations, even the choice of union representation could be further individualized. Instead of simply giving a worker a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, unions could specialize in a la carte services, where members pick and choose what they want from one or multiple unions.

The four methods by which unions might reform and improve highlighted in this study are:

  • Unions as trainers and certifiers: More unions should provide training and apprenticeship programs for workers.
  • Unions as professional organizations: Like other professional organizations, unions should advocate for their members’ interests in the industry, serve as a resource for collaboration and provide social networking opportunities.
  • Unions as representatives: Unions should refocus on providing resources for individual contracts and employees should be allowed to negotiate compensation arrangements for themselves. Merit pay and individualized rewards for productivity should be embraced.
  • Unions as insurance: Unions can provide life, malpractice and other forms of insurance, as well as retirement benefits, such as defined-contribution retirement savings plans, which workers can take with them from job to job and union to union.

The preceding is the executive summary of a just released Mackinac Center study: “Unionization for the 21st Century: Solutions for the Ailing Labor Movement,” released November 11, 2014.

About the Author:  F. Vincent Vernuccio is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. Nathan Lehman, a 2014 research intern with the Center, contributed to this article. This issue originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Labor Watch and is republished here with permission.

1 reply
  1. Tom Z says:

    If a union were to be presented with the option of transforming into the 21st century ideal that you espouse, their first question would be, “What’s in it for me?”

    That’s because unions of today are in the business of supporting the union and not its membership.

    I do not see any major union ever fully embracing the pro-worker principles that you describe. That would weaken their self-serving cash flow. I predict that this union overhaul can only come from the emergence of new unions, either created from scratch, or through the transformation of professional societies.

    So it is not a matter of individual unions adapting, but rather the old union dinosaurs becoming extinct as new competition replaces them —– so long as the pro union NLRB allows.

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