unions are trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow
up. In general, the union movement has been on a steady decline in
the United States except in the public sector. The decline is
fueled by changes in the basic economic structure of the country and
by the many laws, protections and entitlements, which were not in
place during the height of union organizing in the 30s or before.
movement grew in this country based upon the transformation of the
American economy from agriculture to manufacturing and heavy
industry. It was also fueled by the mass production needs associated
with wars, and spurred by great wealth.
accumulation of wealth was bypassing many workers in the American
economy. Fast forwarding to the 21st century, it is clear that the
economy has again been transforming, migrating from an industrial
manufacturing economy to a service economy, and an information and
been failing to reinvent themselves, at least in the private sector,
in order to remain relevant amid these transformations.
At the height
of union organizing, in the 1930s, membership reached its zenith of
about 36 percent of the workforce. In 1983, membership had declined
to about 20 percent. Today, the percentage of the entire workforce
represented by unions is about 13.5 percent, according to Department
of Labor information. In the private sector, the number is down to
about 9 percent.
In a sense,
unions have been victims of their own success. The union movement
gave workers a sense of strength, of solidarity, and of power and
ability to influence the American political and economic agenda.
Previously, those abilities and that power rested with
industrialists and business owners. There were no protections in
place that remotely resemble the situation today sovereign
immunity applied to employers. Workers had little standing to
challenge the decisions or abusive practices of their
entering a time warp and going back to New York in 1910. You would
witness sexual abuse and the lack of protections against injury and
illness on the job. Imagine, if you can, the unchecked racial,
gender, national origin and religious discrimination that existed.
Imagine the exercise of arbitrary authority to demean and intimidate
employees. It was not a time to be proud of in American history. We
owe the union movement a tremendous debt for making the workplace
more equitable, ethical and productive.
unions often resist change in the modern economy rather than support
progressive improvement. Demands often favor seniority over
performance or workplace behavior and frequently hinder
economy, making critical decisions by seniority and failing to have
innovative practices in place to reward excellence is a recipe for
further decline. In the long run, this will harm not only the local
governments involved, but, ironically, the very unions that support
In contrast to
the private sectors decline of unions, the public sector has
provided a great growth opportunity. As unions struggle to re-invent
themselves, they have found success in representing about 42 percent
of government employees. What a contrast between the survival mode
for private sector unions and the growth industry found for unions
in government. What accounts for the difference?
have become even more adept at public sector employee political
action than in the past. Where better to demonstrate the connection
between political involvement, donations, lobbying, etc., than in
the local government agencies themselves? The list of top
contributors to elective office campaigns regularly features unions.
Another area concerns the fact that government is already home to a
substantial number of entitlements and rigid rules or processes not
found as extensively in the private sector.
best example is the remaining existence of 19th century
civil-service concepts and practices in many government entities.
country, HR professionals in government struggle to abide by the
rules, and yet still strive to become more modern, efficient and
flexible. The two forces contend with each other on a daily basis
(see more on the need for Civil Service Reform in HR Doctor articles
such as Living in the 19th Century).
many elected officials deliver a clear message to government
managers. The message is often the opposite delivered in private
organizations. Namely, take no action opposing union organizing.
Most union representation elections are lost by unions in the
without opposition and with the organizing and lobbying capability
of unions, especially those representing teachers, firefighters and
police officers, the result can very definitely affect a local city
or county commission election, where the margin of victory may be
tipped by having union support.
environment where opposition to organizing is stifled, and lobbying
can be particularly successful, there are advantages to organizing
in the public sector that extend considerably further than those
present in a private organization.
Forming a more
perfect union will involve action and understanding by managers,
elected officials, unions themselves, and, the not-to-be-forgotten
employees represented by unions. It will take managers
understanding that poor behavior and failure to reward and recognize
employee contributions (i.e., see the practices of Godzilla the
Manager at www.hrdr.net) constitute the union organizers greatest
officials have a role in resisting the end run efforts of some
unions to work around the organizations negotiators and appeal
directly to the elected officials, who owe their constituents a long
range vision of what could be. Such a vision involves executive
leadership and communication.
Unions have a
loud voice in communicating with elected officials and rightfully
so. However, the voice must not be so loud that it resembles a seat
right next to the bank of speakers at a rock concert. It must not be
so loud that it causes long term hearing damage preventing other
balancing voices from being heard.
obligation, if a more perfect union is to be formed, must rest with
unions themselves. They must stop being so innovation-averse and
understand that they must walk alongside agency management in
defining a future in which excellence is the norm and mediocrity is
eliminated. It must be a future in which recognition, respect, and
appreciation is the expected standard. Godzilla the Union is as
dangerous to government excellence as Godzilla the Manager.
employees of a public agency need more direct opportunities to
demonstrate their loyalty and innovation in a safe, enriching
environment free from inequity and poor behavior by colleagues and
supervisors. Personal accountability and acceptance of
responsibility for behavior and performance on the job would be a
wonderful thing to encourage in a society continuing to be weakened
by the retreat of these qualities.
The HR Doctor
very sincerely hopes that more unions will reform themselves and
morph into more perfect unions. After all, there are no good
management songs. They all came from the glory days of a union
movement gone by.
the HR Doctors hero, Pete Seeger, heres to instruments that stay
in tune and people, governments and unions that do