America’s unions suffered a major loss last week when the Supreme Court ruled public employee unions could not collect fees from non-members to underwrite collective bargaining. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that, after the court’s decision in Janus vs. AFSCME, organized labor should rethink its strategies, structures and models.

While the two of us — a progressive labor leader and the head of a conservative think tank — have vastly different opinions about the court’s ruling, we both agree it ought to be a catalyst for change in the labor movement.

Love or hate unions, there is no doubt that the percentage of organized workers in this country has decreased: at organized labor’s high-water mark in the 1950s, nearly 30 percent of workers were covered by union contracts. Today, it’s 11 percent, and only 6.5 percent in the private sector.

This decline of unions has many causes. Some argue that current unions, and the laws that govern them, don’t fit modern realities. Others believe that unions have declined because of a decades-long campaign to weaken them. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive explanations. And either way, the supermajority of American workers without 20th century-style collective bargaining agreements still deserves access to modern, adaptive organizations to give voice to their economic aspirations, whether in a particular workplace or the larger economy.

Unions need new approaches for new work

The enterprise-based bargaining system developed for the manufacturing and construction employees of the 1930s has remained inaccessible for independent contractors in long-haul trucking or the “gig economy.” And the old structure is almost impossible to adapt for the many people working in far-flung franchises, retail stores, salons, offices, tech firms and farm fields. Quite simply, it’s a one-size-fits all model for a past era, and unions need new approaches.

For some workers, labor unions very much like the ones that exist today may still be the best option. But most will need to turn to new kinds of organizations. Some of these could be created under current law, like broad-based non-profit organizations intended to represent the interests of working people as a whole — think of an AARP for workers. Or cooperative “trade associations” made up of all workers in an industry — the medical and legal fields already have these types of organizations.

Other possibilities would require tweaks to the law, including: union-like organizations that only operate inside a particular workplace; unions that sell services to employers; and works councils with the power to “meet and confer” with management like those common in Europe. More far-reaching ideas include entities that represent all the workers in a given industry — think, a giant organization for all fast food workers — or contracts that let companies outsource hiring to a union.

The bottom line is simple: America’s current model of industrial and labor relations no longer works for most workers. But organized labor shouldn’t give up hope. Working people can still get the best deal for themselves if they band together. Simply objecting to the Janus decision, however, won’t make things better. American organized labor must innovate and adapt for a new era.


Image credit: bakdc

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