A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I took a MOOC (massive open online course) from MIT on “Shaping Work of the Future”. One of the topics that I felt the course spent a lot of time on was the idea of a new employee – employer social contract. This totally makes sense to me.
As they were talking about the key stakeholders in the new social contract, they mentioned labor unions. It got me thinking. The latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show union participation at about 10.5 percent or roughly 14.7 million people. That’s a significant decrease from 1983 when the first union membership data was available, and the rate was 20.1% and 17.7 million workers.
I’m sure you’ve been paying attention to the recent autoworker strikes. Or the teacher strikes. On some level these are classic labor – management disagreements about pay, benefits, and working conditions. Organizations have been showing healthy profit lines for a few years now (since the Great Recession). And we know from the monthly jobs reports that employee wages are not increasing at a comparable rate.
But as I’ve been reading about these labor and management challenges, it reminded me of this conversation about the new employee – employer contract and unions. Is it possible that labor unions can and will find a way to reinvent themselves? Will labor unions become more than an organization that fights for employee pay and benefits?
As more people talk about automation and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, I can definitely see unions becoming a solution for employees who are concerned that their jobs will be eliminated. Especially if the company doesn’t share any type of plans to reskill or upskill their current workforce.
I also think there could be a new reason that employees join unions. And that’s to have a voice. Workers expect management to listen to them. Think about some of the current workplace conditions we’re hearing employees are being exposed to:
- Sexual harassment and retaliation
- Workplace threats and violence
- Discrimination and a lack of equity
- Safety and environmental concerns
Could this alter the perception of unions? Will employees who used to join a union to get work security now join a union because they can get a voice? I don’t know that I have all the answers. But this recent survey from the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan indicates that half of non-unionized workers want to join a union (up from a third in previous surveys).
Organizations need to think about unions. And that doesn’t mean in a bad way. I’m one of those human resources professionals who always heard unions were bad. Then I went to work at a hotel where my employment attorney told me the union was the best thing that ever happened because the company had a good relationship with the union. We partnered with the union. Some companies have the same kinds of relationships with unions. This isn’t to say that they agree on everything, but they work together to achieve results that are a win for employees and the company.
All I’m saying is don’t let those participation numbers lull you into a false sense of security. It’s possible that if employees do not feel their needs are being met, they may look for someone to step up and be that voice. And a labor union could become that voice.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Havana, Cuba14