Thursday, February 12, 2015

Union Membership Declines

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the number of workers who belong to labor unions has decreased slightly in the past year. In the United States, total union membership stands at 14.6 million, which was a decrease of about 0.2 percent from last year.  In all, about 11 percent of the workforce belongs to a labor union. In contrast, in 1983, the first year data was available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, with 17.7 million workers belonging to unions. The report also shows that the current union rate among public sector employees is over five times higher than the union rate for employees in the private sector. 35.7 percent of public-sector workers are members, compared to just 6.6 percent for the private-sector.

This is another indicator of the waning influence of Labor in the American workforce. But what might be the reason for the continuing decline?

Unions have refused to adapt to the modern workplace. Collective bargaining means one-size-fits-all. They don’t recognize individual contributions. Unions demand that management base promotions and raises on seniority not merit. However, today’s employees expect to be rewarded for what they bring to the table. More than 70 percent of the current private labor force is under the age of 45. Younger workers tend to be highly mobile, better educated, in white-collar or "new"-collar (computer, technical, etc.) careers. Yes, they care about wages, but also feel such issues as gaining new skills, having a say in how their jobs are done, career advancement, and quality of life both on and off the job, are just as important. Many simply don’t see a union contributing positively to those needs.

I also believe more of today’s workers realize they can advocate and negotiate for themselves much more effectively and not have to pay a union to do it for them, and end up not having much control over the outcome.

Today’s more competitive and global business environment also plays a part. When unions raise labor costs and business has to compensate by raising prices, consumers can shop somewhere else. Unions that insist on uncompetitive wages may wind up like Hostess's Bakery Union - with unemployed members.

But I have to believe that the tens of thousands of federal, state and local employment laws and regulations – with new ones being passed all the time – play a huge role in the decline of unions. There was a time in this country when unions seemed necessary. Many businesses took advantage of and abused workers. But business wised up – both voluntarily and by force. It’s no longer necessary to have a union to coerce a business into paying fair wages or maintain a safe work environment. Laws and regulations have done that. In many ways, government has assumed the responsibility for the things traditionally handled by unions. Unions have therefore become less necessary for most workers.

All of these reasons (and more, I’m sure) are also the reason for the drastic antics of labor unions (think about the OUR Walmart actions over the past couple of Black Fridays), and the vast overreach of the NLRB. Union membership is declining and these folks are desperate to stop and reverse that decline. Problem is, they continue to use the same old model, the same old tactics, which many are now seeing as tiresome at best, ineffective and downright unnecessary and abusive at worst. We can hope that the tide has turned and that the smart American worker sees more value in his ability to guide his own future rather than hand it over to those who care more about their political influence and the collection of dues to support that influence than they do about the individual worker.

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