While browsing the Internet on Labor Day, I ran across “Labor’s Dead: Long Live Labor” posted on Global Labor Strategies. The title captures the dissonance I feel contemplating this issue. Having grown up in the 60s in the Flint, Michigan, and having spent much of my adult life working for and with organized labor, my bias is that labor unions can be a great force for good. But I also recognize the need for reform and revitalization.

Labor unions gave us the 40-hour workweek, middle class wages, safer and more humane work environments, healthcare, disability pay, Family Medical Leave Act, due process and many other benefits reaped even by those never associated with unions.

The article states only 8% of the private sector workforce currently belongs to labor unions, (compared to about 33% in 1960). It identifies three contributing trends:

  • Capital mobility – companies roaming the world looking for lax laws and low labor costs

  • Corporate structures – keeping the core functions and farming out the rest

  • Contingent staffing strategies – secondary workers (temps, part-time, etc.) with no job security

Revitalizing labor unions is a daunting task. Saturn, Harley-Davidson and Kaiser Permanente, a health-maintenance organization, are three companies where it is being tried. We consulted with Kaiser Permanente and the Coalition of Kaiser Unions for more than seven years supporting a first-of-its-kind National Labor Management Partnership Agreement. This effort is aimed at moving to collaborative managing strategy using Interest-Based Bargaining and partnership.

This meant labor and management were asked to partner in making decisions about the business of healthcare. It was a monumental change for Kaiser and the Coalition both as a business model and a social experiment.

This article has suggestions for revitalizing labor unions:

         Labor's revival in the era of globalization will require a new kind of labor movement, one that not only provides effective representation at the workplace and in the economy but also helps workers represent themselves in relation to the basic questions of society: of how we will address the challenge of global warming; of how we can overcome the polarization of wealth and the persistence of poverty; of how we can build the essential cross border solidarity necessary in the era of globalization.

       “In fact, the issues on which labor’s revival depends are not simply the issues of craft, industry, or employers but are essentially class issues that relate to the role of working people in shaping the direction of the society.”

 Authentic conversations must be at the center of any movement that revitalizes unions. Stating clearly and honestly differing points of view, maintaining goodwill, taking the other side, each side owning their contributions to the difficult issues and seeking common ground for the good of the whole goes a long way to creating something new and vital.