The President Barack Obama spoke at a recent meeting of the AFL-CIO and after prepared remarks, he responded to a question from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The nub of the exchange was that the President would advise employees to join a union, just as President Franklin Roosevelt did back in the 1930s.
Is that what we need today? Let’s examine President Obama’s advice by comparing today’s workplace with that of the past.
In 1935, the U.S. unemployment rate was more than double what it is now. There were no workplace protections or overtime requirements. The minimum wage law was still a few years away.
Workplace health and safety was something most workers only dreamed about. Discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics was permitted. There were no legal consequences for workplace harassment.
Employees were not entitled to leave when a loved one was ill. There were no such things as reasonable accommodation or time off when someone was, for example, undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
Instead of thinking their "employees were their most important asset," employers thought workers were fungible. Only the most progressive organizations had employee handbooks, complaint resolution systems, and proactive training for supervisors.
In such an environment, workers turning to a union for representation made tremendous sense. Thus, by 1955, unions reached their high watermark, representing 35% of the American workforce.
Today’s workplace is much different. It is highly regulated…some would say the rules are so complex they inhibit job creation. Employers have adopted sophisticated workplace policies and procedures that provide for respect, dignity, recognition, safety, non-discrimination and advancement.
Supervisors receive regular training on proper interviewing techniques and how to embrace diversity in the workplace. Many organizations have "zero" tolerance policies for workplace harassment. Indeed, some company boards require senior officials to resign when their conduct gives rise to serious question.
A variety of federal and state agencies protect employees, for free, as required posters on company bulletin boards advertise. Why pay a union for what is already an entitlement? This does not mean an employer is "anti-union"; it just means the union is irrelevant. Today, not surprisingly, the unionization rate of the private sector is 7.2%.
Indeed, modern workplace disputes between unions and their members may be as common as those between an employer and its employees. Take, for example, the upcoming union election at Kaiser Permanente in California involving 42,000 employees. The question being asked of these workers is whether they want to continue to be represented by the Service Employees International Union or a new union headed up by Sal Rosselli, a former SEIU leader who now heads a new breakaway union. One account says the SEIU may spend up to $40 million in trying to preserve its representation of these members. That’s a lot of dues spent on inter-union squabbling!
Do some employers abuse their employees even today? Can a union sometimes constitute a value proposition? "Of course," is the obvious answer.
But that does not mean a union is the "best way" or a "preferred way," or even a "desirable way," of achieving workplace satisfaction. The only people who can answer that question are the employees themselves, preferably through a secret ballot election based on all relevant facts presented in a non-coercive spirit.
"Maybe the President thinks he needs a union," the American worker may say, "but that does not mean I do."