Should the government require the scandal-plagued UAW to represent nonmember autoworkers who have rejected them repeatedly? Should public companies be required to appoint union representatives to their boards?
These are the solutions powerful labor unions, and even some right-of-center think tanks, prescribe to revive unions’ falling membership. But they will do more harm than good.
Labor law in the United States was created for the Industrial Revolution, and it is less and less relevant to a modern economy. The think tank American Compass, founded by right-of-center researcher Oren Cass, deserves credit for elevating the conversation of why unions are shrinking and suggesting avenues through which they might grow again.
Cass and I depart sharply on what some of the solutions look like. The conservative way forward for labor is not through government mandates or one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, it is through voluntary unionism, with unions acting as professional associations that workers want to join and employers want to draw on.
Most problematic is Cass’ suggestion of sectoral bargaining, which is increasingly getting support from the political left and prominent unions such as the SEIU.
Sectoral bargaining, as described by Bernie Sanders’ Workplace Democracy Plan, is a “system that will work to set wages, benefits and hours across entire industries, not just employer-by-employer.” This is how the UAW could dictate terms to Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, and other nonunion car companies, even though the workers in those companies have repeatedly said they do not want the UAW representing them.
Unions and politicians like Sanders rail against right-to-work laws, claiming they force unions to represent workers who are not paying them. It is ironic, then, that under sectoral bargaining, unions would negotiate on behalf of thousands of nonmembers.
The idea put forth by American Compass that unions have seats on corporate boards is similarly flawed. If Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 2018 Accountable Capitalism Act had been passed, it would have mandated that a “corporation must ensure that no fewer than 40% of its directors are selected by the corporation's employees.”
Rachel Greszler, an economics fellow at The Heritage Foundation, explained in a paper released last month that “employers should not have to succumb to micromanagement by an outside organization in order to meet worker desires.”
The Greszler study, which describes how voluntary labor organizations can help employees, shows that choice and individualized representation are the keys to any union comeback.
A 2014 study I wrote for the Mackinac Center, “Unionization for the 21st Century: Solutions for the Ailing Labor Movement study,” describes several ways unions can build on the many things they do already, but only by giving up the monopoly they have on bargaining for all employees and the force they can exert on employers to bargain with them.
These services could be provided a la carte or all together. Some may take a change in law, but unions could deliver many of them today if they gave up exclusive representation and became members-only associations.
To expand their membership, unions should act as professional service organizations, providing professional development such as the American Bar Association. They can also provide training for new workers, similar to the apprentice system trade unions use. From this foundation, unions could also provide optional certifications such as the ASE Certification mechanics use to show potential employers or customers they are safe and reliable.
Unions could also provide insurance, ranging from health insurance to professional liability insurance and even unemployment insurance. The Freelancer Union already offers some of these services, and it shows the way unions can stay relevant to independent contractors and the gig economy without attacking entrepreneurs’ ability to work for themselves. Unions could also offer plans to represent members legally if they get in trouble on the job.
Finally, instead of using one-size-fits-all contracts that are typical in collective bargaining, more unions should follow the lead of entertainment and sports unions, which have base contracts but are individualized so that higher performers earn more.
There may be areas where pragmatic labor leaders, Cass, and conservative organizations such as Heritage agree. These intersections could shape unionization in the 21st century. The key principle for conservatives and those who believe in the free market is that any change should embrace voluntary association for workers, employers, and unions. Ideas that limit choice are the past, not the future.