If you read our series about what President Trump can control and local issues that he can’t control, you know that companies to be front and center with local wage, paid leave, and other issues. You also know that corporations should take a stand on immigration, especially if they employ a diverse workforce and depend on highly coveted skill sets. Companies also need to vigorously protect their brands and take measures to prevent a dreaded early morning tweet from the president about a mishap.
Unions used to be front and center on these issues. They bargained for wages, paid leave, staffing models, and used measures such as boycotting brands to bring attention to workplace issues.
What Happened to Unions?
Unions lost a lot of money on unsuccessful Senate races in 2016. Now they are reflecting on how they can be relevant to the modern worker. Unions are figuring out how to adapt, and it’s likely that in the future the movement will be less about collective bargaining and grassroots organizing. Union organizing is expensive, and it’s simply not driving dues paying members. Consider these statistics from the BLS:
- In 1983, 20.1% of Americans belonged to labor unions
- In 2016, only 10.7% of Americans belonged to a labor union, and public sector employment (teachers, firefighters, police) represented the majority of these workers
The Future of Unions = Technology
Unions are already transforming into membership interest groups like the National Rifle Association and the AARP. This allows them to attract a lot more members and money than they can through union dues, and it’s also a way for them to stay relevant. Young people aren’t interested in joining unions, even though Millennials are more open to their existence. It’s just not a model that works for them.
But technology definitely works for Millennials, and unions are deploying cutting-edge technology. Apps such as Shift and WORKIT are designed to give workers advice on workplace rights and policies. One app downloaded Walmart’s benefits package to give employees answers instead of having them work through the Walmart system. Some apps also identify unfair labor practices, and offer to help employees file claims. These apps are building relationships, and trust. They are far more efficient than the traditional model of collecting authorization cards – or even electronic signatures – and holding elections.
We hear a lot about bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, which sounds great, but the fact is that we’re going to automate 20 million people out of jobs in the next 30 years.
First, manufacturing doesn’t look like it used to even 10 years ago. Furthermore, we can’t look at manufacturing in a vacuum, since without a supply chain goods don’t move. Amazon bought the Kiva system in 2012 to reduce the number of warehouse employees they need. Google, Uber, and Tesla are all racing to create autonomous vehicles.
The Port of Rotterdam uses robots to unload containers instead of longshoremen. The robots even replace their own batteries, which are recharged through electricity that’s generated locally by wind. If we deployed the same robotic technology in the Port of Los Angeles, it’s estimated that we would reduce jobs by 40 to 50 percent.
Let’s think about drivers at the highest level of job classifications. If we include all drivers – local, UPS, long distance truckers – and aggregate the job, it’s the biggest classification of workers in the US. Google, Uber, and Tesla are all working on technology that will automate this job out of existence.
The New Union Model
Unions have to figure out how to play in this space. They’re starting to move away from politics and organizing and figuring out how to create apprenticeship, training, and development programs to stay relevant. This approach worked for them 75 years ago. The question is whether they will be able to claim this space, or if companies will grab it out from them.
For example, the trucking industry gave up on truck driving schools years ago. Many companies were forced to start their own schools due to cuts in community college budgets, and shifting focuses on technology over skilled trades. The same is true for welding, which is critical for many manufacturing jobs.
Most companies already excel at training their employees, and career pathing is an integral part of their retention strategy. The question becomes: What’s the role of unions in this model? Can they still develop and champion apprenticeship programs, or have companies displaced this function?
Walmart is already partnering with communities on workforce development, and it’s much more effective for them than fighting unions. They’ve been able to change the discussion from wages to opportunities. In fact, by focusing on workforce development, they’ve completely changed their brand with their employees, their customers, and their communities. There’s no reason why other companies can’t follow suit.