Restoring the Middle Class by Refashioning the Appeal of Unions

This article appeared in the September 2011 Labor Day issue of the Right Flier, the newsletter of the Wright State University chapter of AAUP. In my previous post to this blog, I suggested that the unions of the future will, by necessity, need to look different and function differently than they do today, and I provided a brief overview of what that might mean in more specific terms. This article elaborates on those points.

This Labor Day provided an occasion for hopeful reflection on the part of union leaders, union members, and labor advocates in many parts of the country, in particular across the so-called Rust Belt. In response to radical right-wing attacks on the collective bargaining rights of public employees and the legal requirement to pay prevailing wages on public construction projects, unions have re-energized their memberships, and the general public’s attitudes toward union-affiliated workers have begun to rebound after a very long decline.

Once the bastion of American manufacturing and American labor, the industrial states of the Northeast and the Midwest have faced a very difficult transition over the past four decades. In their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, unions were associated with middle-class prosperity—with jobs that paid well, that provided substantial medical benefits and pensions, and that gave a measure of job security to dependable and productive workers. Those benefits of union membership and the numbers of union members have been eroded by a combination of factors:  the relentless advancement of technology and automation, the development of multinational corporations, the competition provided by cheap labor in other parts of the world, government policies that have placed a greater emphasis on expanding foreign trade than on preserving American jobs, and the simple fact that America’s great economic advantages in the 1950s and 1960s, decades in which much of the rest of the world was either recovering from the devastation of the Second World War or emerging from European imperialism, were simply not sustainable. So even though American manufacturing output has continued to rise, the percentage of the work force employed in that sector and the portion of the gross national product that it produces have dramatically declined.

As the economy has become much more service- and information-based, and as the role of government at all levels has expanded, unions have appealed to new groups of workers and have gradually adapted to greatly changed economic realities.  But, given the dramatic and accelerating concentration of wealth that has been occurring over the last four decades, unions certainly have as much of a role to play as they had in the century between 1850 and 1950. But the question is how labor leaders and labor advocates can convince a majority of American workers that unions can be as much a key to personal affluence as they were during their heyday. What follows are some suggestions on ways in which I believe that unions can serve and appeal to increased numbers of workers. I am not in favor of abandoning all of the old strategies that have served the American labor movement. But I do believe that this moment in labor history presents unprecedented possibilities for a revitalization of that movement if labor leaders and labor advocates are willing to think outside of the proverbial box.

Suggestion 1: Redefining Membership and Benefits of Membership

Union membership should not be defined by membership in a collective bargaining unit. Instead, like the AAUP, unions should include individual members and, where enough workers are individual members, the equivalent of advocacy chapters. Union membership should be open to anyone who does not hold a management position. This inclusiveness would require the establishment of new unions for previously unrepresented categories of workers, but given the degree of centralization already provided by the AFL-CIO, a framework for this process should be easy to define. In essence, unions should shift their focus somewhat from organized groups of workers to individual workers and seek to represent as much of the work force as possible.

The issue then would be why those workers would want to join a union. Many people who now have negative attitudes toward unions are former union members whose wages and benefits could not be protected or whose very jobs could not be preserved by their unions. Often local jobs seemed to be too willingly sacrificed to some broader national aim or principle. Since the old benefits of union membership simply cannot be provided with any surety to many American workers, unions have to reinvent the ways in which they might be associated with upward mobility and economic security.

Suggestion 2: Unions as Providers, as well as Negotiators, of Benefits

Most American corporations have eliminated pensions and have offered employees the alternative of largely self-funded retirement plans. In many instances, employees have been encouraged to buy stock in the corporation, tying the employee’s future to the company’s future, but with no liability to the company and with all of the risk borne by the employee. (I think that the person who first conceived of this shift must have been one of the most cynical bastards ever born in this country.) Likewise, most corporations have shifted or are shifting the cost of health care to their employees. Often the best “benefit” that an employee can get is the opportunity to enroll in a group plan that reduces the cost of the benefit being borne by the employee.

Redirecting this principle to the greater advantage of workers, unions should pool their membership and provide medical coverage and other benefits at a cost much reduced because of the economies of scale. About 12% of American workers currently belong to unions, and about 30% of the total population lives in union households. If all of them purchased benefits for themselves, their spouses, and their dependents through their unions, unions would immediately become one of the largest, if not the largest, non-governmental provider of medical benefits in the country. And as union membership increased, the downward pressure on costs would increase. Costs to individuals could be scaled somewhat to income so that even low-wage workers could afford the coverage.

The benefits should be portable so that as workers moved to better jobs and perhaps different unions, the benefits would move with them. Perhaps workers could purchase insurance that insured that their benefits would continue for a defined period even if they lost their jobs. Perhaps workers could invest in union-defined retirement plans with very low administrative costs. But to avoid the corruption that has been associated with some union pension plans in the past, there would need to be a combination of national and local oversight. As much as possible, individual workers should have the opportunity to select benefit options that would match their financial means and their needs.

I am not suggesting that unions stop trying to negotiate for medical and retirement benefits. But the trend is clearly away from employers providing those benefits, and unions should recognize the need and the opportunity. In fact, if unions could provide these benefits at low cost to their members, then negotiations with employers would increasingly focus only on wages and working conditions. Given the obfuscation that often surrounds the cost of benefits carried by employers, it is not a stretch to assume that there would be an upward pressure on wages—in particular over the next three decades in which the median age of the American population is expected to rise steadily. Certainly, having portable benefits would make workers more mobile, more able to relocate to where the highest wages were being paid. Ironically, employers might wish to begin again to provide benefits because wage increases are almost always more expensive, by percentage, than comparable-sounding increases in benefit costs.

Suggestion 3: Unions as Providers of Education

“Lifelong learning” has gone from being a cliché to a necessity. At the very least, unions should use their collective numbers to negotiate reduced tuition at colleges and universities for their members and their dependents. Those institutions already subsidize the educations of targeted groups of students. As much as possible, unions should also study local and regional labor needs and work with colleges and universities to develop programs that will prepare workers for their next job before their current job becomes less attractive or completely obsolete.

But the best education-related initiative that unions could undertake in order to insure the advancement of their members would be to develop a non-profit alternative to for-profit online institutions such as the University of Phoenix. To keep costs low, unionized faculty could be encouraged to teach one class every third or fourth year for no compensation, though perhaps an arrangement can be made to treat the forfeited compensation a tax-deductible contribution. In addition, retired faculty could be provided with a way to supplement their incomes, modestly and from home. And new doctoral graduates who have been unable to find university positions might be given term appointments that would provide another option beyond the currently available and highly competitive post-doctoral appointments. Some retired university administrators and corporate managers might even join our unions in order to return to the virtual classroom as a capstone to their careers.

I am sure some of you are wondering how our universities could be kept from resisting tooth and nail the establishment of such a non-profit, low-cost, online university that would immediately be available to about one in five Americans. The bricks-and-motor universities could be contracted to provide any needed labs or niche courses at a somewhat inflated cost. But they could also be encouraged to provide their own degrees to union members and their dependents at the same cost as those offered by the online university.

To recognize the potential appeal of such a benefit, one has only to consider the number of faculty and staff who work at colleges and universities for lower salaries than they might receive in other public-sector or private-sector positions simply because of the tuition-reduction that is part of their benefits.

The National Labor College has a much more limited focus than the sort of online university that I am describing. But it might provide a foundation on which such a broader university could be constructed.

Suggestion 4: Unions as a Renewed Political Force

One of the complaints currently raised against unions is that dues are allocated to political campaigns inevitably against the wishes of some of their members. To preserve the political clout of unions while eliminating this issue, I would suggest that each union member be required to set aside a small percentage of his or her salary in an account for political donations. Just a very few years ago, this sort of arrangement would have created a bookkeeping nightmare. But at a time when donations can be made to disaster relief over a cellphone, certainly coded accounts could be created to receive these designated funds and to allow their disbursement only to other coded accounts set up by any politicians who wished to receive such contributions.

It would be the responsibility of the unions, at the national, state, and local levels to provide their members with detailed summaries and ratings of candidates’ labor records. A positive rating would be the equivalent of an endorsement. The unions would have to trust that their educated members would very seldom vote against their own self-interests. And the politically empowered union members would very likely become more broadly engaged in the political process than they ever have been in the past.

I hope that these suggestions provoke more than a little conversation, that they are copied to colleagues at other institutions or in other unions, and that they inspire suggestions that may be even more practical and advantageous to unions and the workers whose interests they attempt to represent.

4 thoughts on “Restoring the Middle Class by Refashioning the Appeal of Unions

  1. Union alternatives to the for-profit schools… I can imagine all sorts of advantages, and not simply in the realm of subject matter.

    It is my hope that the AAUP will be involved in the needed refashioning of unions. It certainly can be and, as you have said, can even provide a model for parts–even as the AAUP refashions itself.

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