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Can Unions Survive in Modern America?

Not only are the Viking fans in Minneapolis excited about the upcoming Super Bowl in their home town, but so are the members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 1005 who settled a dispute just time in time for the big game. As I thought about the 2,500 bus drivers, light-rail train operators, mechanics and other members, it made me wonder about unions, and what they mean to us.

As states in the U.S. continue to increase minimum wages. Obviously, the “working man” benefits from such increases, so does he still need someone to speak for him? Does he still need a hard-knocking union to protect him from the evil under-paying employer? Gone are the days when workers toil at a couple dollars an hour in Industrial Revolution-era factories.

In 1970, union membership totaled 25 percent of the workforce, private sector union membership currently hovers around seven percent.[1] Do unions still have a place in an environment where state governments, despite the current presidential administration and federal agenda, seem to be willing to pick people up and pay them more?

Knowing that states are taking care of employee base wages, pursuing a union membership, paying monthly dues and dealing with the headache of a third party just doesn’t seem to make sense like it did in the past. For instance, if someone is working in Massachusetts earning $10/hour as a dishwasher, they may not see the value of being part of a union.

Make no mistake, unions have taken several self-preservation steps. They have masterfully protected themselves in their negotiations. Some contracts maintain a flat wage increase whenever a mandated increase occurs, while other contracts mandate a percentage increase above the established minimum wage, thus triggering an upward movement whenever the state or federal wage rises.[2]

Another negotiation approach some unions have taken is simply to mandate new negotiations on wages should state or federal wages rise. The language might be worded in the following manner:

In the event of an increase in the Federal or State minimum wage the parties agree to meet with the intent to discuss and resolve issues related to the increase and wage disparities (or lack thereof) relative to seniority created by such increase.[3]

In addition to direct benefit from contractual language, union members benefit in another unique way from minimum wage increases. People know they need experience, and might work for less to get it. Minimum wage increases restrict employers from hiring people who would work for less to “get in the door” and learn. Employers cannot necessarily pay that “scrape-bottom” wage, and may have to pay wages near or at contractually established union rates. This further protects union members and secures them from lower priced competition.

Unions cannot “hang their hats” on ensuring higher wages – state legislatures seem to be working on that. Unions will need to emphasize other causes.

One cause will continue to be ensuring members are able to comfortably rely on retirement funds for their lives subsequent to work. The daily dollar is not as important as the dollar many years down the road after the member employee has toiled for decades in their own role, gaining sufficient seniority to retire comfortably. A retirement “nest-egg” is something everyone would love to have.

Work-life balance continues to be a “buzz word” for generations X, Y and now the developing Z’s. Unions will take up arms to protect quality of life and fairness in the workplace. The union as employee champion is nothing new, but seems to be earning renewed attention.

Unions have to exist today for reasons other than the hourly wage. The fight now is about job security, working

environment, true workplace representation and retirement. According to news reports, the transit negotiations in Minneapolis, while involving negotiation regarding pay, placed considerable focus on the topics of restroom access and safety. The wage is an ever-decreasing piece of the collective bargaining puzzle, as unions strive to maintain relevance.

I have always been fascinated by union history, tactics and strategy. It will be interesting to see what they do in the coming years to ensure their own survival and value to their shrinking membership pool. It is clear to me that they can still have a place in America, IF they target what is important today to the average worker/member. Unions will need to borrow a well-known lesson from the business world – if you shift priorities and are willing to change, you survive and thrive.

[1] Arthur Shostak, “Trends in US Trade Unionism,” Employment Relations Today 34, no. 2 (2007)

[2] Richard Berman, “Why Unions Want a Higher Minimum Wage”, Wall Street Journal, 2/25/13

[3] Negotiated Contractual Language, 2014

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