Unions Keep Losing Members — Can They Reinvent Themselves?

The latest figures on union membership from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the long decline has continued to the point where the percentage of Americans in unions is lower now than at any point in the last century.

That decline has not been arrested even by the extraordinarily pro-union actions of the National Labor Relations Board (such as this Arkansas case where two-third of the workers have petitioned for an election to decertify an unwanted union, but the NLRB has gone to court to block that) and union efforts at greasing the rails for election victories, as occurred with Volkswagen management in Chattanooga. Big Labor is obviously addicted to the old-fashioned tactics of dragooning workers into their ranks by hook or by crook, then relying on coercion to keep them there.

Whereas the prospect of union representation seemed very alluring to many workers back in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, the promises of union organizers today largely fall on deaf ears. The Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk was correct in saying, “They’re selling a product that hasn’t changed that much since the 1930s when America’s labor laws were founded. Today’s workers simply aren’t that interested in purchasing what unions have to sell.”

One big reason why many don’t want unionization is that they know much of the money they’ll have to pay in will go to support political candidates and causes they oppose.

It’s crucial to understand that workers do not “join” unions the way Americans join any other sort of organization. Ever since the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, unionization has been a tug of war in which Big Labor’s goal is to get a majority of the workers to declare at a moment in time – the certification election – that they want a particular union to represent them.

If they get that majority, all of the workers will have to accept the union’s exclusive representation and will not be allowed to deal with the company on their own. And they will have to continue to accept that union until such time as another election might be held to decertify it. (Unlike political elections, there are no regular union elections under federal law.) All of the workers will have to pay the dues the union sets or face termination if they don’t – except states with Right to Work statutes.

Decades ago, entering into such a quasi-political relationship with a union might have sounded all right to many workers, but today most Americans are leery of locking themselves into unionization. In the VW case, despite a massive blitz of pro-union propaganda, 53 percent of the workers declined to march into the UAW, many undoubtedly thinking that they might never be able to march back out.

It is not illegal for a labor union to try to obtain members through the same kinds of voluntary means that other organizations have to use, and only provide services to those who want them. But if they don’t get the NLRB to certify their majority status, they don’t get the unique privilege of being able to compel contract negotiations and to threaten legal action if company representatives do not bargain “in good faith.”

That explains why unions have become utterly reliant upon the governmentally-sanctioned majority/compulsion system. Union leaders keep desperately looking to Washington (which is to say, the Democrats) to rewrite the laws and stack the bureaucracy so they can grow in power and wealth. They simply can’t think outside the 1930-ish government power box.

Is it perhaps time to consider a different approach?

That is the theme of a recent paper by F. Vincent Vernuccio, Unionization for the 21st Century. Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center in Michigan writes, “In order to thrive, unions must stop relying on the compulsion and monopolistic privileges labor laws granted them in the last century. The way for unions to grow and better serve workers is to compete for the voluntary support of new members.”

Competing for the allegiance of workers who choose to pay for whatever services the union has to offer is an idea foreign to American union officials, but it creates a huge entrepreneurial possibility here. The field is wide open.

What services could unions offer workers? Vernuccio suggests several possibilities: training, insurance, representation (agency), and a variety of professional assistance (such as the Freelancers Union).

Big Labor is certain to denounce the idea that unionism should stop depending on legal privileges, strong-arm tactics and militancy, and embrace contracting with willing customers just as all other groups in society do. It’s like asking the old-line Soviet leaders to forget Karl Marx and embrace Adam Smith. Nevertheless, the 1930s model of the labor union is as out of date as the rotary dial telephone. All that is propping it up are laws, foremost among them the National Labor Relations Act, that keep workers from deciding individually whether to join or not and leave if they become dissatisfied.

We should repeal those laws. Then labor unions will have to persuade people to join because benefits are worth the cost and, just as important, respect the freedom of those who don’t think so to say, “no, thanks.”