Column: Labor unions must reinvent themselves

Marick F. Masters

Organized labor deserves credit for building a strong middle class and promoting a pluralistic democracy. Yet unions are among the most vilified institutions. Beleaguered by decades of continual decline, organized labor struggles to maintain an influential position. To remain relevant, unions need to reinvent themselves and unite workers around uplifting goals.

The economic benefits of unionization are noteworthy. Pay levels of unionized workers are about 15 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts. Unionized workers enjoy better retirement benefits: 81 percent of union workers participate in defined benefit plans compared to 18 percent of nonunion workers. Unionized workers are also more likely to have paid sick days, paid vacations, and a voice over work schedules. Unionized workers also possess more job security through grievance procedures that mitigate unjust dismissal.

Since its heyday in the early 1950s organized labor’s position has continually shrunk. The percentage of unionized private sector employees has tumbled to under 6.5 percent while overall membership has fallen to less than 11 percent. Apart from the public sector, labor has faded across the industrial spectrum; its share of the manufacturing sector, for instance, has plummeted to just 8.8 percent.

The fall of labor has brought adverse economic consequences. For most workers, pay has stagnated. The inflation-adjusted median hourly wage grew by only 9.9 percent between 1979 and 2016. Income inequality rose as the top 1 percent of earners saw their pay jump by nearly 200 percent during this period. Middle-income America has shriveled with the decline in labor: the percentage of adults in middle-income households has dropped from 61 percent in the early 1970s to just 50 percent.

Despite their weakened condition, unions have come under increasing attack. Five states have enacted right-to-work laws since 2012; Right to work prohibits negotiating contracts that compel nonunion employees who are represented by unions to pay dues. Several states, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, have significantly curtailed collective bargaining rights among public sector employees. And employers have remained viscerally opposed to union organizing. In fact, organizing under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) has literally stalled as a vehicle for growth. In 2016, NLRA-supervised elections added fewer than 58,000 employees to union ranks in an overall workforce that exceeded 133 million employed.

The one-size-fits-all model of today’s unionism is outmoded. Labor unions need to reinvent themselves at many levels.

First, they need to improve their public image. Labor unions are diverse on many dimensions. More than one-third of union members are people of color; almost 47 percent are women. More than one-half of union members possess an associate’s degree or higher level of education. The leadership of the labor movement should reflect its diverse membership.

Unions must also unify workers around a common set of aspirations: inclusiveness, opportunity, and social enlightenment. Unions are a powerful solidifying force if focused on bettering conditions for the current workforce and promoting upward economic mobility for the next generation. All workers, regardless of age, gender or race, benefit from efforts to treat people with dignity in the workplace.

Labor unions should also offer multiple platforms of representation. They should represent employees in the nonunion sector who are mistreated by employers. They should form industry coalitions to promote common wage, benefit, and working conditions across employers in the same industry. Unions should exert the force of public scrutiny to expose inadequate and unfair working conditions. And unions should partner with other institutions, such as community colleges, to provide one-stop continual learning centers to upgrade the knowledge and skills of the workforce.

Finally, unions must assert their political independence from any one party. Labor’s relationship with the Democratic Party is one-sided. Too many Democrats running for office take labor’s support for granted. They gladly take union money and benefit from labor’s voter mobilization but do nothing positive in return. Democrat lawmakers need to earn labor’s support, and for this they must promote a progressive agenda for economic growth, opportunity, social enlightenment and justice.

Marick F. Masters is a business professor at Wayne State University and director of Labor@Wayne.