“Organized labor is in free fall,” writes Eduardo Porter in the New York Times. He’s right. As Porter puts it,
The number of workers who belong to a union has plummeted about 20 percent over the last decade. Only 8 percent of all workers are unionized. And leading labor activists are wringing their hands over the seemingly inevitable death of a movement unable to cope with technological change.
The one bright spot in this gloomy picture is the public sector, where organized labor still claims a healthy 37 percent of all workers, but even there things are looking worse. Scott Walker’s wins in Wisconsin threaten to set off a national fight to rollback public sector unionization, and many cash strapped states and cities are cutting wages and benefits and laying off workers over the objections of union leaders. And union promises of safe pensions are looking shaky; even NPR is running sobering stories about just how weak and poorly secured these vaunted programs really are.If unions can’t protect you from layoffs and cutbacks, and if they don’t know how to negotiate pension agreements that actually, um, work, public sector workers are going to lose faith.As one would expect from anything published in the NYT, Porter’s piece looks for reasons for optimism and a way forward for organized labor. He draws an analogy to the 1930s, when organized labor was also on the brink but developed new strategies and reinvented itself in a way that made it relevant to the economic conditions of the time. If unions wish to stay relevant today, they will need to reinvent themselves to something more suited to the modern work environment.Porter checked with various economists and experts to get some ideas:
The future labor movement may have to give up organizing work site by work site. Its biggest political fight in the last few years — pushing a law to make it easier to organize a workplace — may be irrelevant. And fighting to create new barriers to foreign competition is probably a lost cause. Instead of negotiating for their members only, unions might do better pulling for better wages and conditions for all workers.Some scholars, like the economist Richard B. Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggest the labor movement could take a page from the AARP’s playbook and become a lobbying group. German-like worker councils could discuss workplace issues with management, without negotiating over pay.
These are radical steps, and large organizations and bureaucracies are notoriously resistant to change. A number of union leaders—as well as a large segment of the political left—have a strong stake in unions remaining as they are. The change may not come from within; organized labor will continue to wither and die, while new forms of association and advocacy grow up on their own.It’s possible that an AAEP, an American Association of Employed Persons, could be as formidable a force as the AARP and other big lobbies like the National Rifle Association and the American Automobile Association. And such a group could be profitable: think of the credit cards, the insurance products, the discounts and the air miles it could offer. By providing value to members in this way, an AAEP could attract dues paying members much as the AARP does.Porter’s piece misses another way in which the traditional labor movement has become less relevant. Organized labor works best in a setting where people have jobs for life. If you are a factory worker in an automobile plant, and you have no reasonable prospect of getting promoted into management, your interests are pretty much the same as those of the other people working beside you on the assembly line, and it makes sense to have the same organization represent you.But in today’s economy, the jobs for life model isn’t as common, and most workers can expect to change jobs and even change industries several times in a career. Rather than having somebody bargain collectively with an employer, many of us need someone more like an agent. That is, we need somebody who knows us, knows our skills and our interests, and looks around for new jobs, new careers, new skills we could acquire that could help us reach our goals.This looks like one of the jobs of the future: the career development professional who helps people make their career dreams come true and serves as an adviser and advocate as workers and students navigate their way through the complex and shifting economic conditions ahead. For less than workers now pay in union dues. professionals like this could make a bigger difference in both the quantity of your pay and the quality of your work experience.In any case, the decline of organized labor as we’ve known it doesn’t mean that workers no longer need advocates or that workers are going to be crushed by the overwhelming power of capital. The 21st century economy needs 21st century institutions; the millennial generation has a lot of thinking and building to do.