The Future of Organized Labor

In his 1989 book The New Realities, Peter Drucker wrote: “The labor union rose with the industrial worker; it was in fact the industrial worker’s own institution. It is falling with the industrial worker. Can it survive at all?”

We’ve been chewing on this question in light of David Leonhardt’s column in The New York Times this week, which suggested that a major reason for the nation’s jobless recovery is a shift in “the balance of power between employers and employees.”

[EXPAND More]“Unions have withered, at least in the private sector, and courts have grown friendlier to business,” Leonhardt writes, alluding to the fact that only 6.9% of private-sector workers are unionized today. “Many companies can now come much closer to setting the terms of their relationship with employees, letting them go when they become a drag on profits and relying on remaining workers or temporary ones when business picks up.”

Later in the piece, he adds: “Today, unions are clearly playing on an uneven field. Companies pay minimal penalties for illegally trying to bar unions and have become expert at doing so, legally and otherwise.” (Several states, in a bid to seem “pro-business,” are actively trying to keep unions out, as well.)

“For all their shortcomings,” Leonhardt concludes, “unions remain many workers’ best hope for some bargaining power.”

Drucker, for his part, certainly saw big problems with organized labor. He noted that many unions won their greatest gains in earlier decades—“short working hours, overtime pay, paid vacations, retirement pensions and so on”—leaving relatively little to fight for in later years.

“There is also—its importance of this should not be underestimated—the steady deterioration in the quality of union leaders,” Drucker added. “Furthermore, the public perception of the labor union has gone down sharply. Instead of being the ‘protector of the weak’ against ‘management power’ and ‘management arrogance,’ it is seen increasingly as ‘arrogant’ and ‘overpowering.’ (One might add “corrupt” to that list of adjectives in light of this week’s mob indictments, which allege Mafia ties to a cement and concrete workers’ union as well as International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1235.)

In another piece, Drucker called on labor unions to “drastically” transform themselves and to again become “dynamic, effective, legitimate.”

But, like Leonhardt, Drucker (who in addition to advising many companies also counseled the United Farm Workers and other unions) also believed that organized labor plays a crucial and fundamental role, providing a needed balance between employer and employee. “Power, as the drafters of the American Constitution knew, needs to be limited by countervailing power,” he wrote. “Modern society . . . needs an organ such as the labor union.”

What do you think? Do labor unions still have a vital role to play? If so, how can they begin to regain some of their lost standing?[/EXPAND]

Photo credit: Brett Gundlock/National Post