The Future of Unions: Back to Guilds and/or Forward to Work Councils?


Union membership at private employers has declined over the last few decades, standing at less than 7% of the U.S. workforce today. Part of the reason for the decline in membership has been the success of unions over the years. Unions have worked to improve working conditions in individual plants and factories. They have also lobbied for passage of labor laws that affect all employees, unionized or not.

Image from Forbes

Image from Forbes

Consultants helping companies to develop positive employee relations tell their clients’ managers that “employers deserve the unions they get.” They imply that most workplaces are unionized only when management does a poor job of managing—when managers do not follow labor laws and regulations, and when managers do not treat workers with respect.

Not all managers take this advice to heart, but most managers do try to do the right thing, thus reducing the value of union representation to rank-and-file employees.

So, in the absence of evil-hearted managers, what is the future of unions? How can unions develop new programs and goals to address the needs of workers today?

Here are two proposals:

  1. Work on skills and job placement, like the guilds of old

Trade unions grew out of the guilds of skilled workers who practiced particular crafts. The guilds controlled the flow of work to their members, and provided the members with education, tools, and a sense of community. Tradesmen worked together to advance their common interests, but each craftsman was essentially self-employed.

The guilds failed when they hindered innovation and fought among themselves for members and territory. While they provided some efficiencies in the development of the crafts they supported, ultimately their protectionist tendencies increased costs for society as a whole. Does this sound like our unions of today?

Nevertheless, as our economy moves away from life-long careers at a particular employer and more toward self-employed knowledge workers, there may be an emerging need for organizations like the old guilds. Small employers and workers wanting more control and flexibility in their work could benefit from such guilds. The guilds could provide trained workers for short- or long-term projects and positions.

Moreover, as employer-sponsored health and retirement benefit plans change, unions/guilds could substitute their own plans to suit their members’ needs.

Many professions essentially have guilds today. Bar associations for lawyers are one example—they control who is licensed, they provide educational opportunities and discipline their members, they advocate for the interests of lawyers and the judicial system in which lawyers ply their trade.

Unions could take on these responsibilities in a number of occupations, from skilled crafts to freelancers and consultants in many industries.

The downside for unions? They would have to collect their dues directly from members, rather than through payroll deductions from large employers. In other words, they would have to become more accountable to their members. Not a bad result, in my opinion.

  1. Foster the development of work councils

VW logo_newRecently, the United Auto Workers attempted to organize Volkswagen’s plant in Tennessee. Volkswagen took a position of neutrality on the union campaign, but the UAW still lost the vote. One reason Volkswagen did not protest the unionization attempt was that Volkswagen supports works councils in its plants, and wanted to develop a work council in its Tennessee plant, like its German plants.

Works councils are organizations within a particular workplace that govern the work within that location. They help to reduce workplace conflict by providing strong channels of communication between workers and managers. Many times, the councils include union members, nonunion workers, and management.

Works councils are strong in many European nations. They are rare in the U.S., because works councils of nonunionized employees are considered to be prohibited “company unions,” because of the support they receive from management.  See Electromation, Inc. v. NLRB (7th Cir. 1994). In the absence of a union, works councils in the U.S. have very limited topics they can discuss, and they cannot negotiate on working conditions.

conflictNevertheless, if U.S. employers and employees see the benefits of works councils in improving the flow of work through their facilities, there might be a renewed interest in unions. To make this happen, unions will have to recognize that “unions get the management they deserve.” If unions are confrontational, management will continue to resist. If unions facilitate the profitability of the plant, management will be more receptive.

In summary, unions need to change to respond to the disinterest of employees today in joining a union. Perhaps a return to the advantages of guilds or a greater use of cooperative tools like work councils will give more workers a desire to join unions.

What do you think—should unions be receptive to developing either guilds or work councils? If they move in this direction, are employers likely to respond positively?

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Filed under Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Law, Leadership, Management, Workplace

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