GUEST COMMENTARY: Unions' relevance is up to unions

2013-09-01T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Unions' relevance is up to unionsBy Kevin Brinegar nwitimes.com
September 01, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Organizational survival requires changing with the times. Unions in America have reached that stage — forced to transform to try to halt a steadily declining membership base and to more effectively serve their customers.

It’s up to them to make their membership attractive and valuable to existing and potential members. It’s the same thing the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and other membership-based organizations must do continually.

The drop in union membership in recent years has been steady and significant.

In 2012 (the latest data), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined to 14.4 million. That puts the union membership rate at 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011.

In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers. Also, union membership in the private sector has fallen to 6.6 percent.

For Indiana, union membership has decreased to 9.1 percent of the state’s overall employed workforce; the year prior it was 11.3 percent.

Undoubtedly, union leaders will say this is because Indiana became a right-to-work state last year or because of trade agreements such as NAFTA. However, union membership has been dwindling for years. Further, the impact of right-to-work legislation on union membership ultimately depends on the ability of unions to be responsive to their members’ needs.

And it can’t be said enough that right-to-work is about job creation, economic growth and also fairness. Right-to-work does not prohibit labor unions or collective bargaining. Workers still have the opportunity to join or support a labor union in Indiana — only now it is his or her decision to make.

Hindsight tells us that over the past 30-plus years, union bosses erred in spending their energies and dues money advocating for legislated advantages for unions (e.g. mandatory collective bargaining laws, prevailing wage laws, etc.) and for wages and benefits beyond what the market and the productivity of their members could justify. These advantages were simply not sustainable.

In many instances, union bosses literally priced the employees they were representing out of jobs (and their employers out of business).

What they should have done is aggressively lobby elected officials for substantially more funds for training assistance to enhance worker skills to justify, through performance and productivity, the wages and benefits they were seeking from their employers.

Unions’ focus today should be on partnering with their employers and elected officials for greater training and skills development to provide reasonable wages while keeping the employer competitive. The continued relevance of unions depends on it.

Kevin M. Brinegar is president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. The opinions are the writer's.

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