Hardly a day goes by when American unions are not attacked from some quarter: Last week, the Supreme Court weakens unions representing home care workers, one of the lowest paid and fastest growing occupations. This follows another ruling struck earlier last month in which a California judge threw out teacher tenure, due process and seniority rules under the dubious theory they are the cause of persistent inequality in education outcomes. And in 2011, Wisconsin’s governor decimated public sector unions by taking away state and local government employee rights to collective bargaining, reversing a policy in place since 1959.
It’s clear that for years most private sector employers have successfully fought union organizing and collective bargaining using every legal delaying tactic and in many cases illegally firing workers. Wal-Mart WMT 0.42% ,the nation’s largest private employer, is the most visible case in point. By deploying its union-fighting swat team from corporate headquarters to any store that shows signs of worker protest, it has remained 100 % “union-free.”
The result: Now down to representing only 7% of private-sector workers, America’s unions and collective bargaining are no longer able to provide workers the power they need to redress workplace injustices or achieve a fair share of the economic growth they help generate.
But America desperately needs a vibrant, innovative, growing, and yes powerful, set of organizations that give voice to and represent workers with their employer and in social and political local and national discourse. No democracy in the world has been sustained over time without some independent institution that stands up for and advances worker rights, interests and economic welfare. Moreover, there is an almost perfect correlation between the decline in union representation and the rise of income inequality.
Having said this, we should not be nostalgic. Trying to recreate unions in their mirror image would be both futile and ill-conceived. Instead, America needs to invent, support and grow a new and renewed labor movement that fits the needs of today and tomorrow’s workers and economy.
The good news is a wide range of experiments with new forms of mobilization and worker representation is now underway inside and outside of the labor movement.
Unions in the utility industry, health care and manufacturing industries are using knowledge and skills as the key source of worker power by expanding apprenticeship training, creating partnership with community colleges, vocational schools, and employers to fill the “middle skills” gaps that exist today or will grow as skilled baby boomers retire.
Read the full post at Fortune.
Thomas A. Kochan is a professor of industrial relations, work, and employment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He is author of the book, Restoring the American Dream: A Working Families’ Agenda for America.