Unions used to be at the forefront on employee issues. They bargained for wages, paid leave, staffing models, and used measures such as boycotting brands to bring attention to workplace issues. Perhaps ironically, in today’s uncertain and competitive market, some companies are taking up the mantle in the name of culture and winning top talent.
It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Union Anymore
Unions lost a lot of money on unsuccessful Senate races in 2016. Now they are reflecting on how they can be relevant to the modern worker. Unions are figuring out how to adapt, and it’s likely that in the future the movement will be less about collective bargaining and grassroots organizing. Union organizing is expensive, and it’s simply not driving dues-paying members. Consider these statistics:
- In 1983, 20.1 percent of Americans belonged to labor unions
- In 2016, only 10.7 percent of Americans belonged to a labor union, and public sector employment (teachers, firefighters, police) represented the majority of these workers
Labor lawyers always say, “You get the union you deserve.” To an extent this is still true, but these days it’s more likely that unions will attract members through tech instead of authorization cards.
Unions are transforming into membership interest groups. The National Rifle Association, and even the AARP, are good examples of this. This allows them to attract a lot more members and money than they can through union dues, and it’s also a way for them to stay relevant. Young people aren’t interested in joining unions, even though Millennials are more open to their existence. It’s just not a model that works for them.
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But technology definitely works for Millennials, and unions are deploying clever technology. Apps such as Shift and WORKIT are designed to give workers advice on workplace rights and policies. One app downloaded Walmart’s benefits package to give employees answers instead of having them work through the Walmart system. Some apps also identify unfair labor practices, and offer to help employees file claims. These apps are building relationships, and trust. They are far more efficient than the traditional model of collecting authorization cards – or even electronic signatures – and holding elections.
Automation & Transportation
We hear a lot about bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, which sounds great, but the fact is that we’re going to automate 20 million people out of jobs in the next 30 years. Manufacturing doesn’t look like it used to even 10 years ago. Furthermore, we can’t look at manufacturing in a vacuum, since without a supply chain, goods don’t move. Amazon bought the Kiva system in 2012 to reduce the number of warehouse employees they need. Google, Uber, and Tesla are all racing to create autonomous vehicles.
The Port of Rotterdam uses robots to unload containers instead of longshoremen. The robots even replace their own batteries, which are recharged through electricity that’s generated locally by wind. If we deployed the same robotic technology in the Port of Los Angeles, it’s estimated that we would reduce jobs by 40 – 50 percent.
Let’s think about drivers at the highest level of job classifications. If we include all drivers – local, UPS, long distance truckers – and aggregate the job, it’s the biggest classification of workers in the U.S. Google, Uber, and Tesla are all working on technology that will automate this job out of existence.
The New Union Model
Unions have to figure out how to play in this space. They’re starting to move away from politics and organizing and figuring out how to create apprenticeship, training, and development programs to stay relevant. This approach worked for them 75 years ago. The question is whether they will be able to claim this space, or if companies will grab it out from them.
For example, the trucking industry gave up on truck driving schools years ago. Many companies were forced to start their own schools due to cuts in community college budgets, and shifting focuses on technology over skilled trades. The same is true for welding, which is critical for many manufacturing jobs.
Most companies already excel at training their employees, and career pathing is an integral part of their retention strategy. The question becomes: What’s the role of unions in this model? Can they still develop and champion apprenticeship programs, or have companies displaced this function?
Tell Us What You Think
How are unions changing in your industry? We’d like to hear from you.