Is There Adequate Worker Representation Today?

For the last couple of weeks, we have been blogging about the Federal Reserve project, Investing in America’s Workforce.  It’s an ongoing initiative to help improve the workplace issues impacting both employers and employees.  Some of the issues the project has been addressing include wage inequality, skills gap, and scheduling.    Last week we looked at workforce investment from the employer perspective.  This week we look at it from the employee perspective.

A few other groups have also partnered with the Fed to provide some valuable information regarding workforce investment.  One of the groups the Fed has partnered with is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Management.  They conducted a study in conjunction with other groups and that study has provided some valuable information for the project.

The study was conducted in 2017 across the U. S. and surveyed a variety of different types of workers such as full-time, part-time, contracted workers and so on.  The survey asked questions about various workplace issues including worker voice.  When it came to having a voice on workforce investment topics such as compensation and benefits, training, job performance, promotions and job security, most of the workers said they had very little opportunity to give their opinions.  Those who conducted the study said automation and globalization contributed to the lack of voice because both of those factors had helped in the decline of unions which really is the cause for workers to lose a voice in the workplace.

The reduction of union representation has also created a significant decline in income since the 1970s.   Productivity may have been but it didn’t help workers.  Shareholders benefited more because corporations decided to provide for them instead.  This wasn’t just a U. S. problem.  It happened in many other countries, too. The only workers who saw a benefit were those in underdeveloped countries.  The loss of unions didn’t just affect workers in organized organizations but it hurt workers in non-organized facilities as well.  One study showed that non-union workers lost more than $3,000 over one year.  The ability to have a good job was lost.

Because unions have decreased in numbers, other non-union worker groups have formed to help workers have a voice with workplace issues.  The Kansas City Fed identified a couple of those organizations such as coworker.org or Direct Caregivers Coalition in New Mexico.  The MIT initiative also identified OUR Walmart or united4respect as a group formed to help Walmart workers.

A non-union group has stepped up to help to help a group of workers that excluded from union representation.  Domestic workers have not been allowed to join unions since labor laws were written in the 1930s because southern lawmakers feared what African-American domestic workers would do if they organized which is a very sad and unacceptable part of history.  Today, the group, The National Domestic Alliance, works with domestic workers to help them on their workplace issues.  These workers nannies, housekeepers, caregivers, cleaning people and others face many obstacles.  Without the ability to have a contract many of these workers have no job security.  Their employment is solely based on the whim of the employer. Thanks to National Domestic Alliance domestic workers now have opportunity to obtain benefits they were not able to get before and they have a Bill of Rights in several states to help with some issues such as wage theft, paid time off, and retaliation or harassment.  Although the National Domestic Alliance is listed as an allied group of AFL-CIO, they can’t organize them because of outdated labor laws. The AFL-CIO can only help raise awareness of their issues.

But there is a group who has been able to gain a voice through a union and they’re very happy about it.  This group is the people who fish for lobster for a living.  They were upset with the fishing industry and decided to talk to a union.  That union was International Association of Machinists, or IAM.  IAM had to figure out how they could best help them.  They didn’t want to turn them down but IAM had never represented a group like this so they had to learn about the fishing industry from the Maine lobster fishing group.  The fishing group is very happy they became IAM members because they now have representation to help with state legislation that can have an impact on their ability to maintain their jobs and make a living.

These are great examples of how workers have gained a voice to raise concerns and, in some cases, receive better benefits so they can improve their lives but, with the exception of IAM and the lobster fishing group, the groups who assist workers gain a voice are somewhat limited what they can do because, as the people at MIT pointed out, there is uncertainty on how those non-union groups can sustain themselves if they don’t have funding sources.

Unions, on the other hand, can do a lot more for work groups.  In one of the articles on the Boston Fed’s site, a union representative told how they organized a group of workers who were making minimum wage with no benefits but thanks to collective bargaining efforts the workers will make $20 per hour with full benefits in the near future.  That’s how unions can create a good job.  Not only can they provide a voice, they can negotiate wages and benefits.  Organized labor has the experience, the expertise and laws behind them to successfully help workers have a good job.

There’s no doubt unions need to look at new and different ways of doing things but they are such as IAM taking on a group that’s totally different than those they normally represent.  Unions are also looking at the automation and globalization issues and how can they better assist workers facing those issues.  Unions, too, are finding new ways to use technology to help them.  But it takes more than looking for new and different ways of doing things.  It also takes updated labor laws which the domestic workers would probably agree.

Most important for any employee is unions do make a difference for ALL workers not just with pay but with a voice.  When you watch labor and management groups work together on some of the most difficult issues, and that includes bargaining for wages and benefits, it becomes hard to understand those who look at unions as an enemy.  When you take away the titles and the labels that are created in the workplace, it comes down to most of us wanting the same things – job security, economic well being and a safe environment so we can home to our families when our work is done.

There’s a section in the Representation article on the Boston Fed site where an economist says unions have two faces.  One face is for worker voice which is good but the other face is viewed as the monopoly face where unions set higher wages than the competition allows and that’s bad he says.  Well, I have questions for him:  Does he want to make a livable wage?  What about executive pay that rose almost 20% in 2017 while average workers’ pay rose only .3%?  What about in 2017 the overall ratio of executive pay to worker pay was 312 to 1, and in 1965, before unions started to decrease in numbers, that same ratio was 20 to 1.  What about that?

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About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at http://calmc.org
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