We’ve all heard it before: “Labor unions are a relic of the industrial age – no longer relevant in today’s mobile, high-tech world,” or “There can be only one winning side in the collective bargaining process.” But are these assumptions, in fact, the truth?
According to Harry Katz, the Jack Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining and Director of the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution at Cornell University’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations, while the form of labor relations has changed since the height of union membership, its essential purpose – namely the advocacy of better working conditions and benefits for workers – remains an influential part of American economics and society.
In this blog, I explore how collective bargaining remains a major force in the American economy, how it has evolved over the past few decades, and how the future of collective bargaining could potentially be beneficial to both labor and management.
Collective Bargaining Still an Important Force in the Economy
Katz says that despite the problems unions have with expanding their membership, collective bargaining is still an important force in the economy. “Even though the share of workers who are union members has declined by historical standards, there are still a significant number of private sector employees represented by unions, with an even larger share in the health care and public sectors.”
Significantly, unions influence the economy indirectly by setting the pattern for an industry or by using their presence as a leverage threat for non-unionized workplaces. Citing the auto industry as an example, Katz points out that while the “Big Three” American automakers are unionized, foreign car manufacturers with facilities in the United States are making conditions better at their factories than they might be otherwise as a way of holding off the unions from successfully organizing their workplaces.
Katz also explains that unions are a primary force in political movements such as the Fight for $15, which helps to raise the minimum wage for workers throughout the country. With the dues that they receive from members nationwide, unions are able to be active in the political arena and influence policy that affects the economy.
Even though they are not the direct conduit as often, unions’ influence in the economy is still seen and felt today. As Katz puts it simply, “Unions still matter.”
Collective Representation Empowers Modern Labor Movement
Traditional collective bargaining, which involves labor unions negotiating contracts between specific employers and specific workers, is still the primary function of those labor unions. However, it’s collective action and representation, involving action in the workplace or political arenas with or without formal representation, which allows unions to retain their influence.
Collective representation here involves the use of union activities combined with the activities of non-governmental organizations and community groups coordinating and working together in political campaigns related to labor issues, Katz says.
“As unions derive less power from traditional union activities such as strikes, political alliances are becoming more important to pushing specific union-based issues,” Katz explains. “These alliances substitute as a form of leverage with employers, although the activities don’t necessarily immediately involve collective bargaining agreements.”
Katz also notes that there has been a recent push by these groups to get employers to be more hands-off during unionization drives. At the same time, unions are trying new innovative approaches to these drives, though with only some successes on each front.
One such approach is the increased use of social media to communicate with the workforce, a strategy that has been adopted by both labor and management. “With a computer mediated workforce, all the employees are not always in the same workplace, so there are some signs of experimentation with social media to communicate workplace issues by both sides.”
Collaboration, Rather Than Confrontation, the Key to Harmony in Labor Relations?
One of the potential keys to a more amicable future for labor relations is the widespread use of what Katz considers “problem solving approaches” to the major issues facing working conditions today.
While President Donald Trump’s election, according to Katz, has made the atmosphere even more toxic for good labor relations in general, the potential for labor-management collaboration at the firm and industry level depends on the situation at the specific workplace.
Katz explains that such collaborative arrangements have become more common since the 1980s, particularly in the auto and health-care industries, with discussions revolving mostly around long-running issues such as training and career development, and more flexible forms of work organization.
This has, in turn, led to more interest-based collective bargaining, where the bargaining is primarily focused on the long term interests of both sides. Katz says that this is seen in some school districts where the parties have come up with teacher evaluation systems that balance teacher-management influence.
Today, this form of bargaining also occurs when the parties take joint steps to control health-care costs by adopting measures that improve the care provided without significantly increasing the financial burden on the employees.
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