Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Future of Unions

Ambivablog has put up a fascinating post concerning unions and a new form a populism that the Democrats might want to embrace to win back blue-collar workers.

The post is long and you should read the whole thing, but the crux is that there are a lot of American workers getting left behind by the global economy—not just because they lack the skills but because their work is being exploited. And no one is helping them.

The argument is that Democrats can fill this void. But isn’t that what unions are for? It seems to me, in this transition to the global economy, we are in real need of intelligent unions. Except, what we need is a whole new kind of union—not the inept industrial-age behemoths that are slowly, slowly going extinct.

We need modern unions that can guide and ease worker transition into the global economy.

The free market only works if everyone plays by the rules. When companies start exploiting workers, the system fails. So what stops the exploitation from happening? Not government. It's knowledge.

And it's knowledge that should be new unions’ business. Not just providing workers knowledge of their rights (although that is very important), but providing the knowledge of how to get ahead. Instead of working to impose seniority systems and no-fire rules, unions should be encouraging systems that reward good work and they should help their members become integral to their companies (instead of mere cogs). Job security in the future will not be guaranteed by collective bargaining. It will only be ensured by being a valuable asset to your employer.

In addition to being that base of knowledge, they could help create a system of job fluidity. Instead of striking, dissatisfied workers could look to the unions to help them get new jobs or even new skills. Unions could provide or work towards transportable healthcare which would go a long way towards easing job changes. And unions could work towards greater transparency from companies so that, when business truly is bad, workers and management can work together to save the company (or workers could get out before it’s too late if they so choose).

This approach is both less confrontational and less problematic for all parties involved. If unions could present themselves as a partner instead of an adversary to business, companies might in turn stop opposing unionization, thus giving many more Americans the chance to join a union.

If unions adopt a more cooperative approach as well as a more holistic approach to their efforts, workers will hopefully become more integrated in the economy. Instead of being disposable parts, workers should be integral pieces. But not necessarily integral to one company—integral to the economy as a whole so that every worker has the means to stay fluid and yet stay employed.

This, I know, is a significant departure from they way unions work now and is no guarantee of success. But it’s an idea that strikes me as worth trying.


At 11:29 PM, Blogger Simon Timms said...

Some very interesting ideas in your post. I certainly agree with the idea of reducating workers in knowledge professions.


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