September 13, 2013

The Future Of Labor Unions In The U.S.

Labor unions in the United States have been struggling with declining membership for decades.  After reaching an all-time high of approximately 35% unionization of private sector employees in the 1950s, labor unions represent just 6.6% of private sector employees according to the National Labor Relations Board.   Unions are very aware of this decline and have tried many things to arrest it, with limited success.  Apparently recognizing that focusing their efforts on organizing and other traditional labor activities would likely result in a continued decline in membership, unions have sought alternate means to expand their membership or influence in recent years.

The resolutions adopted at the AFL-CIO’s 2013 Convention in Los Angeles reflect this focus, with titles such as “A Broad, Inclusive and Effective Labor Movement,” “Building Enduring Labor-Community Partnerships” and “Building a Diverse and Inclusive Labor Movement Now and for the Future.”  Unions are focused on building bridges to like-minded organizations, such as immigrants’ rights groups, civil rights organizations, and student organizations.  They are also sponsoring or otherwise involved with non-union workers organizations such as “Our Walmart” for workers at Walmart stores around the United States and “Low Pay is Not OK” and the various other groups that organized the recent fast food workers’ strikes throughout the United States before Labor Day.     These groups have received support from the Service Employees International Union and other unions.

The United Auto Workers, long frozen out of the manufacturing plants of foreign automakers and the predominantly “right-to-work” states in the South, has recently adopted a new tactic, as well.  On Thursday, September 5, 2013, Volkswagen officials distributed a letter to the employees at its Chattanooga, Tennessee plant informing the workers that the Company was in talks with the UAW to the explore the possibility forming a German-style works council at the plant.   Works councils are common in the German workplace and include representatives of both management and labor who discuss issues such as company strategy and job conditions (except they do not discuss wages and benefits).   In fact, except for its joint ventures in China, the Chattanooga plant is the only one Volkswagen’s approximately 100 plants that does not have a works council.   It remains to be seen whether the UAW effort will bear fruit and, if it does, whether it presages similar organizing efforts at Daimler, BMW, or other foreign automobile manufacturers.

Employers in states with right to work laws — states which now include industrial states like Michigan and Indiana — can expect unions to continue to expand their activities outside the traditional organizing area because unions have no choice but to do so.  Because they represent such a small percentage of the private sector workforce, unions will need to build bridges with other groups if they want to survive in the modern, post-globalization workplace.