‘Black Friday’ protests indicate need for a new union model

In what has now become a holiday tradition, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is, again, trying to organize massive Black Friday protests. While events are planned at hundreds of Wal-Mart’s across the country, the reality is, the hype is actually far greater than participation. 

The truth is that union membership has been dwindling and these protests are not grassroots employee movements. UFCW has even resorted to paying protesters to participate

{mosads}Rather than highlight worker plight, these protests reveal the fact that the union business model remains stuck in the past and does not fit the needs of today’s changed workforce. To be successful in the 21st century economy, unions must adopt a new individual worker-oriented business model that does not depend on-one-size fits all forced representation. 

These protests, manufactured by unions, are less about the employees and more about a desperate effort to increase membership. The UFCW is following this path because it may want Wal-Mart to take away the privacy protection of the secret ballot and simply recognize the union without an employee election. In the past, the UFCW has failed to win the support of Wal-Mart employees through the secret ballot, and is now resorting to a more coercive approach. 

This tactic is evidence that organized labor would rather fall back on outdated, 1930s laws that give unions a monopoly on representation in a workplace, than adapt to the needs of today’s worker. With this monopoly privilege comes compulsion of union representation for employees; of employers to engage in collective bargaining; and of unions to represent all workers, even those who don’t want it. 

Once labor’s lifeblood, exclusive representation and compulsion have become a crutch preventing unions from adapting to a different environment that better meets the needs of workers. 

An alternative model that lets unions represent just those workers who want it may be possible without changing the law. The current one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it model limits a union’s ability to provide tailored services to individuals within a workplace. Unions could shift to an a la carte model where individuals select the services that are right for them. It’s even conceivable that a worker could belong to more than one union. 

Called “members-only agreements,” this scenario is increasingly embraced on both sides of the political spectrum. Removing the government-granted training wheels by giving-up monopoly privileges and moving to a more competitive and voluntary model could generate surprising growth in private-sector union membership. 

This model replaces compulsion with a consumer-oriented approach, with unions providing services to individual workers who value, and are willing to pay for them. Non-compulsory unions can also serve workers by offering training and group benefits such as insurance. One example is the Freelancers Union for independent professionals, which earns revenue from its voluntary members by providing 401(k) retirement plans, insurance and other services. 

Unions that adapt can still represent workers in bargaining for contracts that reward increased productivity. Sports and entertainment unions show the way, with contracts that guarantee pay and benefit floors but allow the employee to negotiate for greater compensation. 

In short, for unions to thrive in the 21st century they must give modern workers products and services they want rather than intimidate employers like Wal-Mart to force workers to pay for union representation. Unions must become more like voluntary professional associations, rather than carrying on as the industrial-era unions of old. If they do not, they will continue to decline. 

Vernuccio is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich., and author of “Unionization for the 21st Century: Solutions for an Ailing Labor Movement.”

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