Are Labor Unions Dead?

I came upon an article today about the Employee Free Choice Act in the Guardian and, as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think that the traditional definition of a labor union may be obsolete in this country. The article was raising the possibility that the EFCA could usher in a new golden era for organized labor in the United States and noting that Congress has the bill necessary to jump-start the revitalization. But the article continually references the past, specifically the years of the New Deal and the 1950s and 60s – the times when the United States was not tied so closely to the global economy and when we were clearly superior to other nations in terms of manufacturing ability and access to the necessary natural resources.

Because we enjoyed such an advantage over other industrialized and emerging nations, U.S. companies needed labor unions to stem worker exploitation and to ensure a safe workplace, livable wages, etc. And unions were often successful in achieving those ends, albeit with some well-documented bumps in the proverbial road.

In today’s global economy, however, it’s hard to envision labor unions wielding the power that they once did. Yes, a labor union would be a nice tool in helping to monitor working conditions, but there is substantial federal and local legislation in place that demands safe working conditions for employees. If you’re searching for manufacturing jobs or you know that warehouse work is where you’re likely to find your livelihood, then these are real concerns for you. But you also know that anyplace that isn’t adhering to acceptable standards will be immediately reported, sued, shut down, etc. Essentially, it’s not the 1930s or the 1950s or 60s – we’re in a different world now.

Labor unions were once able to demand high wages and threatened work stoppages if demands weren’t met. In today’s economy, labor is available and people are becoming more realistic about what their skills are worth. The current auto industry example is so obvious that we can skip it, but the fact is that if companies can’t afford to pay their workers, then they can’t operate. In the end, the companies fail and the jobs are lost. The market must dictate the wages, not the union.

Employees are more savvy and educated than at any time in the past. Do employees need their labor union to represent them in a dispute with management? Or would a good lawyer suffice? Labor unions served an important function in years past in leveling the playing field between management/ownership and labor. Individual employees have resources available to them that were not available before labor unions brought them to the forefront. But now that they are present, many of the functions of labor unions seem to be obsolete.

Or am I missing something?


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