Michigan Expats - Commentary - See All Commentary
Right-to-Work legislation is up for a final vote in the Michigan legislature today. It is a historic and newsworthy vote by any and all accounts. Instead of focusing on the argument over the economic benefits or the politics and means to how it arrived to a vote today, I want to address the relevancy of labor union in the 21st century.
What is happening in Lansing is a big political defeat for organized labor - of course others have a more optimistic appraisal of the situation. But the broader concern of union leadership must be to stop living in the past and move into the present to find a way for organized labor to be a productive economic partner in the 21st century global economy.
There's been statements among union supporters along the lines of Michael Moore's tweet to the right that all non-union workers need to go back to 19th century working conditions. Yes, labor unions were very important in 20th century America improving working conditions and workers rights, but all those have been passed into law for decades. To make the argument that all workers need to continue to pay dues for the successes of the past is akin to making the argument that all African-Americans should still vote Republican because Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party freed the slaves almost 150 years ago. It’s ridiculous.
Organized labor response to declining private sector membership has not been to innovate and become partners with employers by any sort of value addition. Rather, labor has pursued purely political avenues to increase power, revenue, and influence with the intention to stay powerful, well funded, and influential.
But if the true intention and value of organized labor is to be a powerful, well funded, and influential political lobby then why should workers be compelled by law to join and financially support it?
If labor unions want to continue to be relevant into the 21st century, they need to identify what value they can bring as a partner in a competitive global economy. More specifically, the goals of organized labor need to focus less on political influence and more on being a positive economic influence.
Instead of enacting legal challenges to prevent losingexisting jobs and forced new memberships, union leadership should be looking at how they can work with employers to improve work culture and productivity.
Maintaining a completely antagonistic view against employers and business is not a very productive way to engage in a voluntary partnership. And, "Hello, McFly," employment is a voluntary agreement between parties to exchange labor, time, and productivity for compensation. Individuals are not entitled to a job and employers are not entitled to happy productive workers; both parties have to work together to be successful.
There’s a reason companies are focusing more and more on workplace culture and employee appreciation and recognition. Google makesheadlines about their creative workplace culture. OneUpWeb in Traverse City places a huge emphasis on having a fun but relentlessly engaged workforce. Employee recognition is what Baudville, Inc. in Grand Rapids does. Those businesses all place an emphasis on employee recognition beyond wages and monetized benefits. Another example, Gordon Food Service, #4 on Forbes Best Family Businesses, just opened an incredible new headquartersbuilding south of Grand Rapids. GFS employees may not have gotten a raise from moving into the new space, but from speaking with them, they sure feel more appreciated.
That is the new frontier in employee-employer relationships in the modern economy. Union shops and collective bargaining contracts make the employee appreciation and recognition programs of those companies much more difficult. Union contracts are designed to equalize the workplace: everyone works the same hours for the same pay and benefits which consequently leaves little room for bonuses or addition recognition.
A large part why companies don’t want unionized employees and avoid forced unionized shop states is because unionized workers offer very few benefits compared to all the costs and hassles.
That’s why Governor Snyder’s comments that right-to-work might actually help unions is not merely a slap in the face (although there certainly is a bit of that). Ending compulsory union membership puts the burden on the unions to evolve and innovate to become relevant in the 21st century. Unions now have to make the argument to the workers what the value is being a union member and what benefits they receive from paying dues.
Unions fear right-to-work because they fear that they can’t convince employees and employers on the merits of union membership and partnership. That’s why they are focused on using political influence to legally coerce individuals into joining and paying dues. Just this year unions spent tens millions of millions on two proposals on the Michigan ballot last month (#2 & #4) to secure legally compulsory membership. Proposal 4 was a pure money grab to use the ballot system to force thousands of home care workers to pay union dues without their consent through putting it into the state constitution after a similar law was ruled unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, I fear that unions that will continue to focus their efforts on being antagonistic and continue to spend millions legally challenging any legislation that challenges their present legal privileges. They will continue to do everything possible to continue to cling to the status quo of the previous century and resist change.
The lack of vision and stubbornness to innovate and move forward will continue to weaken organize labor. Not just evil big business and Republicans.
What's your take on the debate? Are unions still relevant? What is the role of organized labor in the global economy? Is this a step forward or backward for Michigan and Michigan workers? Let us know, but please keep it civil.