This Labor Day, the Biden administration and Big Labor will no doubt tout the alleged successes of President Joe Biden’s “whole of government” push to increase unionization in the workplace and unions’ modest successes in breaking into a few big corporations. But those stories will also leave a lot out. They’ll leave out the side of the story that unions don’t want workers to know.
That side of the story includes the fact that unionization reached an all-time low of 10.1% in 2022 (and only 6.0% among private sector workers) as worker satisfaction reached an all-time high of 62.3% (according to The Conference Board’s measure, which began in 1987). It also includes the fact that while non-union wages increased by 24% over the past five years, union wages rose by less than 17%.
Those union losses have come even as the Biden administration has pressed legal boundaries to tip the scales in unions’ favor, including by making new ways to unionize workplaces without a secret ballot vote or even in the face of a majority of workers voting against unionizing.
Big Labor and Big Government will argue that declining union membership necessitates government action. But the main reason it’s harder to organize workers today is because unions are providing less and less of what workers want.
There are three main reasons for unions’ continuing decline: failing to adapt to a changing workplace, using workers’ dues for politics instead of representation, and inciting hostile relationships between companies and their unions.
Unions Have Failed to Adapt
Neither the work nor the workforce of the industrial-era union heyday resembles that of the increasingly educated, diverse, transient, and adaptable workforce of 2023. Unlike a 1950s assembly line where workers clocked in at 9 a.m. and out at 5 p.m. and everyone produced 20 widgets a day, few jobs today are so clear cut or routine, and most workers want to be recognized for their unique contributions.
Yet, instead of adapting and finding ways to still provide value to workers, unions have maintained strictly seniority-based compensation structures and rigid workplace rules that reduce workers’ productivity, pay, and flexibility.
That ends up hurting workers who desire autonomy and flexibility. For example, young workers who are parents typically lack the seniority needed to choose the hours they want. And workers who want to put in extra effort to earn a pay raise have little incentive to do so because most union contracts prohibit employers from giving employees performance-based pay raises or bonuses that exceed the union-negotiated pay scales.
While pay is a significant part of what motivates workers, unions have missed the boat on what former American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks said is the secret to human happiness—earned success.
Earned success, Brooks argues, gives people a sense of meaning about their lives, and meaning at work comes from feeling productive. That’s why people who feel productive in their jobs are five times more likely to be very satisfied with their jobs than others who aren’t very satisfied.
But union contracts that strip workers from the opportunity of earned success and insulate them from the consequences of idleness and insolence don’t deliver the productivity and happiness that come from earned success.
Unions Use Workers’ Dues for Politics and Power Instead of Representation
Unions have often turned their focus from serving their members within the workplace to advocating for nationwide political causes and funding politicians who will pass laws to help union officials gain power. Up to one-third of workers’ dues go to unions’ political and ideological activities, and some unions spend more on politics than on representing their own members.
Case in point is former AFL-CIO union leader Richard Trumka’s quid pro quo threat to congressional lawmakers to not support their reelection campaigns ahead of a vote on the union-backed Protecting the Right to Organize Act: “And to those who would oppose, delay or derail this legislation—do not ask the labor movement for a dollar or a door knock. We won’t be coming.”
That legislation was subsequently renamed the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2023 and remains one of liberal lawmakers’ top priorities.
Moreover, the downfall of Yellow Trucking Co. as the Teamsters union refused to allow the company to pursue its modernization plan demonstrates how the power of union officials can come before the jobs of 22,000 dues-paying unionized workers.
Unions Incite Hostile, Unproductive Relationships With Businesses
One of the best indicators of workers’ job satisfaction is whether they like the people they work with. And since employers and employees are mutually dependent on one another—a business’ success depends on its employees’ work, and employees’ jobs and compensation depend on the business’ success—it’s natural for both to desire and pursue amicable relationships.
Yet unions thrive on adversarial relationships and strong-arm tactics, pitting employees against employers and preferring the role of bully instead of mediator and helpful advocate. Tactics like setting up 12-foot blow-up rats to depict management and anyone who doesn’t toe the union line are dehumanizing and destructive to the basic workplace ideals of mutual respect.
While the Biden administration is surging ahead with rules that prioritize union membership over workers’ personal choices and well-being, some lawmakers have put forward commonsense proposals like the Employee Rights Act to modernize labor laws in ways that meet the needs and desires of the 21st century, post-COVID-19 workforce.
Work truly affects every aspect of American life—our economy, our personal and physical well-being, our nation’s fiscal sustainability, and even our national security. With more than 2 million people still missing from the workforce since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that labor policies recognize the value and rewards of work by putting workers’ freedom and opportunities first.
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