Unions Reality vs. Perception

Many Americans perceive unions as entities with declining membership and wielding much less power than in previous years. They see unions as having lost ground in this rapidly changing global economy. However, the reality is that labor is in the midst of transforming itself — at all levels. Local unions engage in new strategies for organizing workers and multi-unions draw together previously disjointed bargaining units. The AFL-CIO has proclaimed itself as the change agent for reshaping the labor movement on a national scale.

Redesigned strategies of the labor movement at all levels and also new relationships with European unions are building capacity that has impacted employers and industries globally. The close relationships being forged with unions and organizations of the likes of the Occupy Movement and Anonymous have strengthened the union’s voice as it rebels against all those seen as `bullies’ — whether that be in the private industry or governmental sectors.

Sal Rubinstein of Rutgers University has been tracking the activities of innovative union locals that are rethinking their strategies, roles, and structures in response to competitive pressures or through negotiated opportunities such as cooperative partnership agreements. All unions share one fundamental characteristic — they have expanded their activities beyond the traditional function of union locals.

As described by a recent Department of Labor report, there is a changed view of the role of management. “Management is seen much more as a function, not as a class of employees, and the locals know that if they introduce the voice of labor in the management function by actually taking on management decision-making, it is a way to increase the representation of collective interests.” To be successful in this arena, however, local union representatives must also be involved in setting the decision-making agenda—not just in responding to what management has already set. In addition, Rutgers reports that many of these locals are involved in areas that historically have been the sole purview of management: strategy formation, product development, technology selection, and the implementation of new forms of production, budgeting, finance, manpower allocation, supplier and employee selection, and actual operations management. Given these new managerial functions, the capacity and skills of locals and their representatives have been stretched in several ways. “The first is the ability to balance responsibility for representing individuals whose rights have been violated, collective representation, and collective bargaining with contributions to business decisions,” Rubinstein explained. The second is the development of local leadership with a cross-functional understanding of a firm’s business in order to contribute broadly to decision-making. “Locals have had to organize resources around these multiple roles, with a new division of labor within the firm and in the reshaped structure of the local itself,” he said. “These new roles and capacities raise an issue around enterprise unionism versus solidarity with other locals,” said Rubinstein. “Locals tend to have an enterprise focus in order to engage in business decisions, but there’s some question about whether this role compromises their solidarity with other locals and the national union.”

The AFL-CIO is spearheading a series of experiments involving strategic organizing across labor unions and in conjunction with the national federation. The campaign’s primary motivations are to organize workers in greater numbers and in less time, while their secondary motivations are to reframe labor’s relationship to the community, as well as how the community views the labor movement.

As it stands today, even with these efforts and change in tactics, the reality is that the decline in unionization has not yet been reversed. Other strategies will be needed to expand the appeal to the masses.