A mural depicting scenes from Maine's labor history returned to public display in Jan. 2013, 22 months after Gov. Paul LePage set off a political firestorm and spawned a federal lawsuit by ordering it removed. (Clarke Canfield/AP)

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that union membership fell significantly in 2012, to its lowest level since 1916. You can read the full report here.

The declining ranks are emblematic of a much deeper crisis: The system of union representation and collective bargaining built into the 1935 National Labor Relations Act is on its deathbed with no cure or replacement in sight.

Unions have been unable to reverse 30 years of wage stagnation and growing income inequality or stem the tide of cutbacks in pensions and insurance coverage. As conditions change (i.e. as workers move from traditional employee status to contract and contingent work, change jobs at a faster rate than in the past, etc.), the percentage of the workforce amenable to traditional organizing and representation continues to shrink. More workers are excluded from union reach today than are included.

To survive, unions need to embrace revolutionary change.

Yet ironically, as ranks have declined, demand for representation has grown. In 1976, just under one third of non-union workers said they would join a union if given the chance; by 2000, nearly 50 percent said they would do so. Moreover, researchers consistently find that 70 to 80 percent of all workers want a say in training and development opportunities, and other conditions of employment. They also expect their employers to value their input, listen to them, and build a cooperative and friendly workplace.

Still, under the current conditions, to survive, unions need to embrace revolutionary change. They need to experiment with innovative models and build on existing ones that have already proven their value.

Here are some ideas:

1. The development of a national on-line workplace survey that workers can use to rate employers as places to work, and then publish the results widely on an easily accessible smart phone app. Ranking the quality of employers in an industry and region would provide workers a new source of power — one that is more widely accessible and more productive than a strike.

2. The best employers and worker organizations could do what Kaiser Permanente and its union coalition are doing — build partnerships that nurture employee engagement. Workers respond well to these partnerships — despite some traditionalist union leaders who argue that all employers are manipulators who can’t be trusted. Workers know better. They can tell good supervisors, managers, and employers from bad ones.

3. New lifetime membership models could be created to help members navigate the 7 to10 job transitions they will likely make over the course of their careers, and provide them with education and training to keep skills marketable. Employers might view them not as adversaries but as preferred suppliers of talent — at least as good as current temp agencies and other recruitment channels.

4. Using social media, community organizing, and political pressure, unions should expose employers who exploit immigrants and other low wage workers. Violating basic labor standards or treating workers poorly would become a national disgrace that would force American employers to establish codes of conduct similar to what multinationals like Nike and Apple have had to do in response to exposes of abuse of contractors overseas.

This new world of worker voice and representation is likely to emerge if we could apply the nation’s entrepreneurial talent to building an economy that works for workers, business, and the overall society.


Tags: Innovation, Law

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