Labor Unions May Become the Voice Of the Workforce

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wall art seated people on the streets of Havana Cuba representing labor unions

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) […]

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