It’s not news to declare that Unions are under attack – they have been a main target of the GOP for decades.
The biggest problem is that the GOP is winning that battle. What is even more problematic is that the people who are best served by a union, are voting against them. Some 60-70 years ago, more than 33% of private sector employees were unionized; today that number is less than 6%. As this astute article by Jonathan Rauch states,
“I had come to see the decline of unions as one of the country’s most pressing problems—and at least as much a social and political problem as an economic one. Old-style, mid-20th-century industrial unions had their flaws, unquestionably. But when unions work as they should, they serve important social functions. They can smooth the jagged edges of globalization by giving workers bargaining power. They are associated with lower income inequality, as the accompanying graph shows. Perhaps most important, they offer workers a way to be heard.”
There’s no other way around it – Unions serve a vital function in our society. And they are dying.
From a Small Business Owner’s Point of View
I understand why executives at publicly traded companies have a whole lot of anger towards Unions. They have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, and they see their employees are relatively interchangeable (lose an IT guy? Just hire a new one), so giving their employees more bargaining power just so they can get a fair share of the company’s profits goes against their ethos.
But it’s totally different when we start talking about a small business. I live and die by my team. If they don’t do a good job, my clients aren’t taken care of, and then the business unravels rather quickly. So it’s my job to make sure that my team is happy, being heard, and in the best position to do their job. If I do that, they are more productive and do better work.
So where’s the disconnect?
I think a lot comes in how big businesses are taught to think about their revenues. There is one book in particular, The E-Myth, that is considered a bible for many in the business world. To over-simplify, it praises companies such as McDonald’s that operate under a franchise model, allowing the business to provide a consistent product (or service) through a churn-and-repeat business model. This idea has been pummeled into businesses to such a level that it has been taken to the extreme: every aspect of a business needs to have clear-cut guidelines so that it is just a conglomeration of interchangeable parts.
The good news is that these views are starting to shift. There are more and more reports that raising the minimum wage is helping companies retain their employees and increase productivity. The more businesses start to see that investing in their employees (at ALL levels of the company) encourages them to work more efficiently, with more dedication – while simultaneously boosting their bottom line, the more these businesses will start to make right decisions by their employees.
But this doesn’t solve another problem plaguing workers: the rapid expansion of the Gig Economy.
Pluses and Minuses for Gigs
Businesses love the gig economy: why hire someone full-time, and have to pay for healthcare, their 401k, et cetera when you can bring someone onboard as-needed? And (some) people love it too: it gives you more flexibility and, if you have an in-demand skill set, you can actually make more money this way.
But there are significant problems: this shift makes it almost impossible to enter the workforce. When a company uses a freelancer, the first thing they ask is to see a portfolio. If you’re just starting out, getting a gig beyond driving for Lyft or shopping for Instacart can be a stretch.
The Atlantic article by Rauch linked to above introduces an interesting idea for Union reform, called the Ghent System. It’s modeled after Unions in Denmark and Sweden, where the Unions administer unemployment benefits, shifting their mission from protecting people’s jobs to protecting their livelihoods. Sounds like it’s one and the same, sure, but there is a huge difference.
Just think about it: if we were able to implement something similar here, Unions could administer their members’ health insurance, their retirement plans, and unemployment benefits when the need arises.
Unions could provide job-specific training, creating another avenue for people who can’t afford (or don’t have the time) to go to college to get good, reliable jobs.
Union membership would give people more flexibility (as their health insurance and retirement plan would come from the Union) and provide the safety net people are losing with the Gig Economy. What’s more, Unions could take a large portion of a company’s human resources tasks off the their plate, allowing companies to focus their resources more directly on their business rather than making sure their employees have their basic needs met.
This is not to say that this would work flawlessly; in fact, (as Rauch’s article states), this idea isn’t even a possibility yet. We would need a waiver from the federal government to even try to legislate a path forward to try this idea at the state level. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t something worth trying.
Ideas like this are not seeing the light of day in politics anymore. I think that is a problem; in fact, it’s a large reason why I’m running for office. If you agree with me and want to see ideas like this pursued, please help me out with a donation. Even $5 will make an impact.