Without a New Strategy, Unions Will Soon be Dinosaurs

…by Terrance Hunsley

The laments of labour organizations when the recent vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama decimated an attempt to form a workplace union, sounded like the plaintive squeal of a dinosaur who missed the last ark of evolution.  If workers in North America are to have any bargaining power in the future, something has to change.   

The unionized labour force was already in steep decline before COVID, becoming more and more encapsulated in the public sector.  From 1981 to the present, the portion of Canada’s workforce that is unionized declined from about 38%, to now something like 27 or 28%.  In the private sector it is now only about 15%. 

The US figures are more dramatic, decreasing overall from 20% , down to about 10%.

There are many reasons for this. Employers began many years ago to shed their unions by franchising, so that every retail outlet became a separate workplace from an organizing standpoint. Business lobbies also convinced governments to change legislation in order to make organizing more difficult. Then free trade and globalization made outsourcing and offshoring of work possible, moving production to where labour is cheap.  Technology and AI permitted work fragmentation and platform work, management by algorithm, and remote work surveillance. 

Post-Covid, the process of separating work from employers will accelerate. 

Stimulus spending will increase the proportion of government work that is contracted out. The chart below, produced by the Brookings Institution, shows that the proportion of US federal government work carried out by contract or grant has been steadily increasing since the late 1990’s. Moreover the stimulus spending from the 2008 financial crisis produced a bump in that area. It is highly likely that COVID spending will produce more of a jump.

The True Size of Government (Brookings.edu)

Post-Covid workplaces are shifting to private homes, spreading out across greater geographic areas.  Offices will be used for selective, specialized workplaces,  meetings and team-building. Retail workplaces are being upended. Health care services are shifting to virtual visits.  The same for lawyers, banks, accountants.

So the strategy of workplace organizing is past its best-before date. Organizing workers who are spread around the world and only linked electronically will not be easy. 

Organized labour, as it exists now, has a big decision to make. 

Should unions try to preserve their current role, and the jobs of union leaders,  by focussing on maintaining current members as long as possible? Or do they make a real effort to reinvent themselves for the future of workers? 

The first, and more self-serving option, leaves a large void in relation to protection and support for workers. Government becomes the only real option, even though some boutique unions or worker guilds could emerge. Governments could come to view unions as simply another form of social enterprise, selling their services to select clienteles. Labour regulation and standards would focus on minimum protections, as skilled workers would be considered to be on their own.  Workers’ power would only be in voting, with perhaps a  labour-identified political party. If we look at the record of the NDP in Canada as an example, there clearly is some potential. However, voting patterns in the USA tend to suggest that non-professional workers do not vote according to the legislative record or platforms of parties.  

But what if unions do decide to reinvent themselves? 

What kind of adjusted or new roles could they pursue?  Well, there is no clear formula for success, but some different paths could be explored.   A first challenge is to actually engage with workers who are not part of their existing structures, who are out there on their own. They need to gain the confidence of these workers by  providing immediate value.  

Occupational and career guidance and employment counselling come to mind. North American unions have for the most part left this to recruitment companies, or the education system. Neither of those sources are optimal for someone trying to sell their skills into an unfamiliar and changing market. There is no community of support.  Yet Canadian history is replete with stories of immigrants who settled in communities with other immigrants of their language and culture. These communities helped each other to find jobs, adapt to the workplace, find other resources and supports. And the communities became very tight-knit and very resilient. Actually, many unions found support in these communities.  Modern unions could learn from this and build virtual communities; use their research resources and extensive networks to be on top of changing demands and needed skillsets, as well as to identify opportunities and resources for individuals. 

Adult training, apprenticeship and accreditation of workplace skills are another area of potential. In the past, unions would take the position that training is the responsibility of the employer.  Which gave away a wide territory of influence and asset-building.  Employers tend to train for firm-specific skills, whereas those skillsets could be developed to be accreditable and portable from job to job. Unions could become influential in providing work-skills training, as well as career management training for people who are self-employed or contract workers.  

One area where they already have a track record is influencing government policy. They could use this experience to foster the development of consultative structures which involve businesses, workers, government and academic experts. They could monitor working conditions in specific industrial sectors, recommend reference wage structures, training needs, etc.  In the past, sector councils, which were implemented and supported at various times by governments, tended to serve employers and were not often intended for worker-empowerment.

Unions could also develop social media campaigns to foster consciousness of mutual interests among workers, including those in different parts of the world. They could build consumer support or opposition to specific businesses depending on their treatment of workers. Consumer boycotts, for example, can have a substantial effect. 

Another emerging field that governments have encouraged are social enterprises. They have been funded or ignored, depending on the whim of the government of the day. The benefactors of these initiatives are intended to be workers and the broader society.  Unions, which are social enterprises themselves, could provide support and leadership for this growing field.

These options of course come with no guarantee of success, but without change, organized labour shares its future with dinosaurs.  

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