Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Future of Unions: A Key Question


BNA's Daily Labor Report ($) has an article based on its in depth interview with the soon to be former head of the SEIU, Andy Stern, that is well worth the read. See, As Retirement Nears, SEIU's Stern Says Shift in Work Processes Top Issue Facing Unions.

The money quote for me:
Are there different ways workers can be successful in the 21st century in addition to unions or a different role for unions in the 21st century?
Regardless of how you feel about him, Stern has to be viewed as one of the more innovative leaders of the union movement, certainly in my career (and this week end is my 35th year law school reunion).

Although my practice has been much more oriented to employment than labor law, as an interested and somewhat better informed observer than many, that sentence says succinctly what I have thought about unions for a long time.

I believe unions have not adapted to the changing world as fast as needed. In what is a gross over-simplification, unions are operating on a blue collar model in what has increasingly become a white collar workplace; a world where a career is marked by multiple jobs and even free lance type assignments from multiple companies, not one job with one company for your working life.

One could quibble and suggest that by assuming, not questioning, that there is a continuing role for unions that Stern may not be really getting to the ultimate core of the issue. That could well be merely semantics and saying it that bluntly could hardly be expected of someone who has spent his life in the organized labor movement.

Stern hopes to find a spot at a university or other organization to think about things that he didn't have time to do as he was meeting the daily duties of running a large organization.

It will be interesting to see what thoughts and/or actions emanate from Stern's reflections. The common wisdom would be that whatever it is, it will be strenuously opposed by the business community. But his underlying point is a good one:
 If you want to have a middle class in America there has to be some way for workers to share in the gains, not just share in the pain.
While it might well be that I would disagree with the conclusions that Stern, and whatever group he gathers arounds him, reaches, I am glad to see someone with his experience embarking on the journey.

He has posed the right question.  I wish him well.

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