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Changing Landscape of Unions Featured

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Changing Landscape of Unions


Introduction

Labor unions have existed in the United States from the pre-colonial era. Until the second half of the 20th century, union membership had largely been dominated by blue collar employees working in the manufacturing sectors. However, the second half of the 20th century saw the decline of labor union forcing the union to adopt new strategies in order to remain relevant. Currently, only about 35% of union members remain in the manufacturing sector, as union have moved to expand membership beyond this sector. This paper traces the evolution of labor union and how the unions have modified themselves to accommodate the shifting landscape.


Evolution of Unions

Labor union had existed informally from the colonial period. At this time they were not widely accepted (Foner, 1991). The enactment of the Clayton Act in 1914 paved way for the formalization and wide acceptance of the labor unions into the country (Foner, 1991). During this period, manufacturing was the main economic activity in the country and therefore most of the union members were factory employees. The union achieved great success in bringing reforms to the workplace. These reforms involved issues such maximum working hours, sick leaves, workplace safety, pension plan, job security, equality of pay and compensation.


In the 1960, the popularity of labor unions began to decline (Foner, 1991). While in the 1950s a third of total employees were union members, this figure has substantially reduced to only 12% of total employees. One major reason was due to economic changes in the country (Foner, 1991). The last half of the 20th century saw the United States transform from an industrial economy to service and information economy. Today very limited numbers of employees work in manufacturing sectors as many have moved to the service and information sectors. Since the unions were largely made up by the employees from manufacturing sector, decline of the sector led to decline of the unions.


The shift from unskilled and semi-skilled labor in manufacturing to highly skilled labor especially due to technological changes has also led to the shift from collectivist to individualist cultures in the work place. Another factor that led to decline of the unions is changes in human resources management policies (Foner, 1991). In modern business world, organizations have realized the benefit of having highly motivated employees. Consequently, organizations have come up with better human resource policies that are geared towards providing better pay and working condition in order to motivate and creating loyalty among employees. This has reduced the relevant of the labor union.

Labor unions have since expanded out of the manufacturing sector in order to avoid their extinction. It is now estimated that only 35% of union members are from the manufacturing sectors. Today the unions draw most of its membership from the services sectors such as teaching, police service and retail stores. In order to survive in this new landscape and new business environment, unions have had to adjust their philosophy.


Change in Philosophy

One of the changes experienced in the union is diversification of services rendered to members (Ramdas, 2011). Today labor unions are increasingly involved in the social and economic development of members and the community. In the past, the labor union concentrated on the core mandate of bargaining for better working conditions. However, today’s union have diversified their services to include aspects such as extending loans, and credit to members, offering legal support and other advisory services as well as making investments on behalf of  members.


The unions have also adopted new philosophy that is more realistic to the modern business environment (Ramdas, 2011). In the past, unions were very bullish in demanding for better terms for their members. They called for increase in wages even though the prevailing business or economic situation does not support such increments. Today, this kind of practice has become impracticable as competition has become so fierce. Such strategies have been blamed from promoting higher pay for a few and job losses for the majority. Unions have responded to this by adopting strategies that are flexible to prevailing economic conditions.


Recommendation

Liberalization and competition are some of the factors that have made labor union less significant in modern work places (Ramdas, 2011). Increased competition has made it impractical for union to keep pushing for wage increment. As result labor union need to develop more proactive approaches such creating partnership with employers rather than maintaining an adversarial role. In modern business environment, struggles between the employers and labor union only serve to reduce the competitiveness of the business which results in negative consequences for all parties (Ramdas, 2011). Unions need to negotiate and work together with employers in coming up with plans that will ensure the well being of the workers as well as that of business. This kind of partnership will result in a win-win situation for all parties


Another recommendation is for unions to join together in order for them to become powerful and more relevant. Fragmentation of workforce has reduced the once vibrant unions to less significant group of employees (Ramdas, 2011). Technology has been largely faulted for this as it enables employee to work from different locations as well as creation of independent jobs. However, the same technology can also be used as tool that would bring together the fragmented workforce to once again form a vibrant union.


References

Foner P. (1991). History of the Labor Movement in the United States. USA. International Publisher Company

Ramdas R. (2011). Are Employee Unions Still Relevant in the United States? February 27, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.indiacurrents.com/articles/2011/10/11/are-employee-unions-still-relevant-united-states


 

Last modified on Friday, 05 October 2012 13:44
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