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Are Unions Still the Voice of the Employee?

Feb. 22, 2019
As economic realities are translated into workforce concerns, collective bargaining is taking a new shape.

“As I sit at the negotiating table, a place where I have been for over 20 years, I barely recognize the conversation,” Paul Shearon, president of the International Federation of Profession and Technical Engineers told me. “The issues we are talking about are those that we had never ever considered, and this gives me great hope for the continued role of the voice of employee in the workplace.”

When tracing the formation of unions, and guilds before that, it boils down to a method for employees to have a voice in the conditions of their employment.  

However, it’s truly more than a voice -- it’s a contract. And it’s the contact that is at the core of the employee-employer relationship.

I asked Shearon the question that is at the heart of the debate about the role of the union as many states become right-to-work states: If an employer treats employees fairly, why do you need a union?

His answer was simple. “Employers have contracts with their vendors and their senior executives and should have contracts with their employees.”

And contracts by their very nature are subject to change. But sometimes the change happens so quickly and in such a dramatic way as to challenge the fundamental nature of the agreement. That’s the case when on November 26, 2018, GM announced it was closing five plants in North America and laying off over 14,00 workers.

GM’s surprising announcement sparked concern on many fronts. UAW President Gary Jones issued a statement on Dec. 3, “objecting to GM’s unilateral decision regarding four U.S. manufacturing facilities.”

It’s a one-sided decision that would never have happened years ago. That was just not how it was done. Decisions in the auto industry were made hand in hand with the union. Previous GM leaders would have surely negotiated with the UAW before taking such steps, said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, in an article in the Toledo Blade.

To some this singular action represents betrayal. “UAW members and U.S. taxpayers invested in GM during their darkest days. Now it is time for them to invest in us!” Jones said in a statement.

While the auto industry is certainly a bellwether for union activity, other unionized industries are currently not experiencing the same reality.

For example, on Dec. 17, 2018, UAW Navistar members voted to ratify a new six-year contract significant improvement including the elimination of all tiered wages; profit sharing; pension plan improvements; and a “no closing agreement” which includes language to retain the contract if the company is sold or merged.

And other unions are succeeding in their contract negotiations as well. The United Steelworkers Union prevailed in their negotiations and in December of 2018 approved a four-year agreement with Arcelor Mittal which provides for an increase in wages, better retirement plans and improved benefits for 15,000 hourly employees.

The United Steelworkers are continuing to push forward in a big way as evidenced by their partnership with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to launch a drive to organize production and maintenance workers at Tesla's solar products factory in South Buffalo. This follows an effort by employees at Telsa’s Freemont, California, plant to unionize.

This apparent move back toward union influence carries with it a refrain that goes back to union roots. "The only way we can ensure that we have a voice in the company and have equal rights across the board is with a union contract," said Aaron Nicpon, a member of the internal organizing committee, in a statement provided by the Steelworkers.

The Changing Role of the Union

While the role of the strength of the union is being debated the number of people who are members of unions has been declining. In 1983, 17.7 million workers or 20.1% of the workforce was represented by a union. By 2017, that percentage dropped to 10.1%, covering a population of 14.8 million, according to the Bureau of Statistics.

However, the decrease in numbers doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t still very much alive and effective, but that their roles are moving beyond their traditional place.

“The bottom line is that it’s not the 50s anymore and the power of the unions based on using economic ‘weapons’ such as strikes and boycotts, is not effective,” said  Philip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute .“Japan and Europe became competitors to the U.S. in the 70s and 80s and then free trade showed up in the 90s, so we now competing with the entire world. This has completely transformed the marketplace and unions aren’t able to deliver the kinds of things they could before. And I don’t see their leverage increasing anytime soon.”

Instead, many see an entirely new future for unions— far more collaborative at that.

“A few economic factors have caused the role of unions to evolve and strengthen its relationships with companies,” says Scott Paul, CEO of The Alliance for American Manufacturing. “Unions are now helping companies recruit workers. And given the worker shortage, this takes some pressure off the employers’ shoulders.”

A union workforce is also a benefit in times of scare workers as they have much less turnover, reducing recruiting costs for employers, Paul notes. Training for future skill sets is also easier and more economical when working with tenured employees.

Unions have also been active partners in working with companies and economic development organizations in strengthening the manufacturing sector. “While many people associate unions with securing higher wages and better benefits, which is still true, unions are now much more aggressive in seeking capital investments for plants to modernize domestic facilities,” he says.

These new ways of working together will continue to evolve.  And it will be the ability of unions to provide a value proposition that relates to current economic times that will determine the nature and structure of future unions, says Shearon.

Forging A New Path

Future unions will reflect the makeup of the younger workforce. For example income inequality, which is at the heart of why the younger workforce is now finding their voice says, Shearon. But will that voice take the form of organized unions as we know today?  Shearon doesn’t think so.

Shearson has an expansive view of union issues given his varied roles. He was an engineer at Boeing, serves on the executive council of the AFL-CIO and he is currently the president of an international union. Over the years Shearon has seen a lot of change. In his own union, which is comprised of more than 800,000 women and men in professional, technical, administrative and associated occupations in the United States and Canada, this white-collar workforce is looking at various ways to ensure its voice in the workplace.  

In 2002, it used traditional methods, such as a strike, to voice issues with Boeing. More than 16,000 engineers, together with technicians, stopped work in Seattle and other locations carrying signs, “No Nerds, No Birds.” But today, the younger workers in the unions are using their influence at the bargaining table.

“Look at what is going on in places like Google, where employees are walking out,” says Shearon. “There is not a traditional union but if you look at the structure it is the beginning of associations of workers.”

And what issues are they addressing?  While historically unions negotiated for defined benefit pension plans, many younger workers have never even had these plans as part of their employment contract. And with millennials’ preference for shorter tenure at companies, those benefits aren’t necessary. What they are interested in is hiring practices such as the promotion of women, says Shearon. They want to know that companies have policies that don’t discriminate based on gender, race and ethnicity.

Other benefits, such as pension and healthcare will not only need to change but also become portable, given the migratory pattern of younger workers.

Newer benefits are springing up, too. For example, younger workers want to see formal training programs that will provide career advancement, says Shearon.

And issues such a social justice is now showing up as part of desired employment. One interesting angle is that employees want to see that 401K matches are an accurate reflection and distributed based on the success of the company.  Gone are the days when only the top level of the company reaps the rewards of a profitable year.

Technology is also playing a part of the workplace and consequently leading to other types of protections. One example is the use of exoskeletons that companies like Ford have adopted. “Some of the exoskeletons actually caused increased strain on employees, so moving forward the union would work need to work with companies to ensure better outcomes,” says Paul.

Other more invasive technologies such as wristbands that track the movement of employees in warehouses would need to be evaluated in terms of employee privacy.

Privacy is part of the larger issue of having control, and while this has historically been the venue of blue-collar workers, more white-collar workers are finding their collective voice. “For professionals, having control over the workplace is very important,” explains James Horvitz, a consultant to workers comprised of white-collar workers. “They need to feel that they have a role in making decisions.”

A Need Sets of Needs

While it might seem unusual for employees to be asking to be in on decision-making, the state of the economy is creating new ways of working.

As the gig economy grows so will gig workers.

“Looking ahead, unions might very well become involved in setting the standards for particular sectors,” says Horvitz. “For example, safety would be one of those. As professions move from company to company to complete jobs, there needs to be standardization.”

“Ethics will move onto the bargaining table as well,” says Horvitz. He points to actions such as longshoreman refusing to unload certain shipments based on the country of origin. Taking a stand in terms of social causes will continue to show up in a variety of ways in the workplace of the future.

And perhaps one of the strongest cases for more empowered voices is the very low employment rate, which is expected to continue. “Higher expectations by younger people in collective bargaining will be driving by low unemployment rates,” Horvitz.

Low employment combined with global pressures such as trade, and even automation, will essentially determine how unions will look going forward.

“We always hear from employers about that fact that the market drives their business, well now the workforce is the market factor,” says Shearon. “Competitions for these workers is the top driver in today’s market.”

With the expectation of a tight labor market for years to come, union—or the future form of worker representation—will continue to be relevant in representing the voice of employees. While the issues discussed at the bargaining table will change in accordance with current and future generations’ concerns, the voice of the workers will not be dimmed. In fact, will continue to increase in volume.

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