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

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • LorangeDuPuis

    Unions have to decide whether they want excessiviely high wages & benefits or job security – if they insist on both thenthey will whither and die.

    • JDavin

      I’d be curious to know what “excessively” high wages & benefits would look like.

      Also for idea #1: would this be something like

    • Barry_D

      Considering that what Americans are generally offered is neither, what’s your point?

  • Justin Locke

    How about amending/ repealing Taft- Hartley? Much of the “teeth” of the labor labor movement was lost with so many forms of strikes made illegal.

  • smarmyfarm

    I don’t know which is more absurd — someone thinking they should publish a list of what unions need to do to grow that’s written by a business professor, that business professor writing that unions need to “embrace revolutionary change,” or the inane list of ideas that he would purported call “revolutionary.”

    A survey is more powerful than a strike? “Revolutionary change” being partnership with management? Black is white? Night is day?

    It leaves you wondering if this person is purposely trying to confuse people, or if he is truly this confused himself.

  • Anonymous

    Oops! I meant

  • MickeyLong

    I’ve often enjoyed MIT’s IWER work and facility. But, I disagree with the good Professor. Unions should focus solely on two things. 1. Getting the right to organize (No, they don’t have it); and 2) meeting their own members’ needs, not all workers’ needs. When unions see their members getting weaker because all workers lack a right to organize, then unions will see that Number 2 is highly dependent on the strength of Number One. Once they’ve achieved the Right To Organize, all else falls into place. All did in 1935 with the National Labor Relations Act, which help them negotiate pensions, health care, and elect leaders who strengthened Social Security. Meaningful organizing stopped abruptly about 1948, because after 1935 so many workers joined unions that employers immediately rushed and passed the 1947 Taft-Harley Act. It diluted the NLRA. Simultaneously, employers pushed for and won approval of select Supreme Court Justices who did splendidly well for employers. They interpreted labor statutes in a manner that further inhibited and indeed prohibited organizing.The rest is history and current events. Now, millions lack a right to organize, and millions are about to retire without pensions, private savings, and a secure Social Security check. Now that labor has returned to its lowest ebb in nearly 100 years (6.4% private sector organized), it should focus solely on the best life saving shock therapy medicine available, i.e., get the right to organize,, Then, organize or die!

  • Ezekiella

    Regarding the survey, does this guy think people won’t work for a rotten employer? They do it every day, if they have to. Additionally, partnerships only work when the parties are on an equal footing. If they aren’t, it’s not a partnership, it’s a fake partnership. Finally, what does this guy think unions have been doing for the past 100 years, if not protecting “immigrants and other low-wage workers”?

  • fordag

    Unions are killing American businesses, just look at Hostess and the car industry. There was a time when unions were helping, that was 100 years ago.

    Today unions are corrupt and power hungry, often using intimidation on job sites to drive away non-union workers. I personally was a victim of that a few years ago. It got so bad employees of our company had to work in pairs at a minimum after one of our people was deliberately injured by a group of union workers. One union worker told me that I was stealing a job from a union employee and had no right to work there.

    Unions need to go the way of the dodo.

    • bricklayer

      I disagree that unions are killing American businesses. My union, the IUBAC (Bricklayers Union) has represented me fairly well since I joined 10 years ago. I have health/medical benefits that NONE of my previous bricklaying employers ever offered. I have a pension as well. I make considerably more than my non-union counterparts, and what a lot of non-union people don’t realize is that their wages are pegged to mine. When union wages go up, so too, do non-union wages, and vice-versa. Yes there are some bad apples in the union world, just as there are the same in the non-union sectors. Given your logic that some bad union members represent all union members, I would argue that the non-union employers who take advantage of immigrant workers thusly represent all non-union employers, and furthermore, all non-union employers should “…go the way of the dodo.”, as you previously stated. Not very good logic, is it?

      • David

        My experience has been there are a lot of bad apples in the union world, and an enormous amount of hostility towards non union workers.

        What you did not address is how unions are killing American business. I mentioned Hostess, put out of business by a union. The American auto industry can’t compete with foreign car makers. American jobs continue to move overseas in part because of union demands on American employers. A fair wage is one thing, I agree with that, but it seems that unions would like to see everyone in a comapny from the janitor to the CEO earn the same wage. It simply does not work that way.

        • Barry_D

          “My experience has been there are a lot of bad apples in the union world,
          and an enormous amount of hostility towards non union workers.”

          It’s hilarious to see that written in the aftermath of the Great Financial Collapse.

    • Barry_D

      “Unions are killing American businesses, just look at Hostess and the car
      industry. There was a time when unions were helping, that was 100
      years ago.”

      It’s always ‘union time’ 100 years ago. As for Hostess, the management looted the company.

    • KYLE

      one thing all should know when a non union company places a bid on a job and a union company places a bid on a job and the non union is only a thousand dollars less on a million dollars job where does all that money go? Not to the workers because they are paid less and have no benefits. In my eyes we need unions more now they ever before, the American worker is getting ripped off by the greed of others. Kyle Ironworker UTAH

    • Rob De Jonge

      Mulally the CEO of ford motor company publically said that The UAW saved Ford motor company and they were the reason that for didn’t have to take the bail out from the government. Google it!

    • Sapdaddy

      Hostess is a horrible example you obviously have no clue about what your talking about. There new management got a 200% raise and the corperate scumbags got even bigger bonuses all the while complaining there Union workers were making to much $ and driving the company into debt. So not only did management get a huge raise and the corperate crooks got there millions in bonuses they also used the employees pentions and retirement funds toward the companies operating expences. Can you say scumbags!!! Now they have non union employees making half of what there union counterparts were and yet the price for there product is still the same. This was a blatant attack an the american worker with only one thing in mind to pay there workers as little as possible and take away all there rights so the comp bigwigs can pocket millions more for themselves! As for all unions being corrupt you couldn’t be further from the truth and its not the individual worker we are against let’s face it everyone needs to put food on the table one way or another. Sometimes some individuals can take it to the extreme especially when provoked which many non union comp take advantage of by hiring people to start fights with the union members that are striking in front of a non union site. Our real enemy is your employer who take advantage of there employees by not giving them livable wages, safe working conditions, health and retirement benifets , paying people cash so they can cheat there taxes and basically deny that person is an employee if they get hurt on the job and in many cases they hire illegal aliens and pay them next to nothing. I have seen this all first hand I had worked for a non union comp an illegal worker fell 20ft the boss came over through him in his truck dropped him on a corner a few blocks up and told him to call911 and say he got hit by a car! Another incident iI saw working about 20 stories high was looking down at the non union job next door to ours. I saw a bobcat run over a man and about 2 min later a white work van pulled up and about 15 guys (assuming illegal aliens) jumped in and took of just before the ambulance and officials showed up. I’ve been on jobs that were non union that had to b finished by us. When we got there they got about 5 stories high upon further inspection all the outside welds were undone apparently they had no man lifts so whatever they couldn’t reach by ladder just was skipped. I could go all day with the horrible, dangerous situations I have come across that put people who are just trying to put food on there table in harms way because there employer wanted to cut corners.

  • Barry_D

    Some comments are at:

    Money quote: “Kochan places all the onus on organized labor and none on employers and does not seem to recognize the underlying conditions that have made union representation so difficult. He also effectively ignores what
    unions actually do and don’t do.”

  • Origami_Isopod

    Nice Polite Republicans strikes again…

  • Tom Divney

    Unions are missing the boat. Workers want better conditions, but many don’t like many unions’ hardline, often dogmatic, approach to relations with management. They also see unions as bloated, with too many full-time union officials with nice suits, salaries and benefits, far removed from possible memberships.

    Better examples include the Freelancers Union for unfiliated workers in a knowledge worker economy. Unions also need to offer practical solutions to worker concerns, and better marketing. If workers continue to pay union dues in a tight-wage economy and don’t see tangible results, of course they will question the benefits of membership.
    Unions need to reach out. If they have the numbers, organizing will be easier. They need to stop focusing only on their members, but find out the interests of non-members as well.

  • MikeG

    One aspect that effects the success of unions is their future as democratic institutions. The more they collaborate with management in tough times the more vulnerable the incumbent leadership is to rank and file revolt.

  • Community Fundraiser Host

    If I may add my two cents worth… in some cases, Unions are needed, I recognize that. However, when unions interfere (in the case of a Union going after a non-union hotel) with a privately held public fundraiser, by harassing not only organizers, but party guests with phone calls at their place of employment…Their tactics leave a very bad taste in my mouth.

    Quite some time ago, the LGBT community aligned itself with Unions for mutual support, and as a gay man, if tactics like this are being used (just because a union wants into a hotel), I will personally not support their case. A livable wage measure (Measure “N”) was passed here locally, bring the minimum wage of hotel workers to $13.00 versus the $9 – $10 dollars they were making before. The workers seem happy, but yet our event (non-political)for a local AIDS Foundation gets singled out by the union because we’re utilizing a non-union hotel…Great way to make your case A**hats!

    Tsk Tsk Tsk… not only have you left a bad taste in my mouth, but you’ve lost this gay man’s support entirely.

  • Publicus

    Why don’t labor unions just buy the companies their members work for? Then they could give their members all the benefits they want and they wouldn’t have to fight with management over anything.