New study details how unions can adapt for the 21st century, stem membership decline


MIDLAND — Organized labor can grow its membership by providing valuable services to members and representing the diverse set of needs of today’s workers, according to a study released last month by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy titled “Unionization for the 21st Century: Solutions for the Ailing Labor Movement.”

“The way forward for the labor movement is to inject employee choice and voluntary exchange into an outdated, industrial-era business model,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy director at the Mackinac Center and author of the study. “They need to focus on the needs of workers. Unions have to adapt to survive.”

Vernuccio said unions must move away from their traditional operating model, which is based on coercion and monopolistic privileges granted by the labor laws from the last century.

“Private-sector union membership is at its lowest percentage of the American workforce since 1916,” he continued “They need to evolve to meet the unique needs of a skilled, modern, flexible workforce.”

The four methods by which unions can reform and improve highlighted in the study are:

• Unions as trainers and certifiers: More unions should make their primary focus training and apprenticeship programs for workers.

• Professional organizations: Like other professional organizations, unions should advocate for their members’ interests, serve as a resource for collaboration and provide local networking opportunities.

• Unions as representatives: Unions should focus on providing resources for individual contracts and employees should be allowed to negotiate compensation arrangements for themselves. Merit pay and individualized rewards for productivity should be embraced.

• Unions as insurance: Unions can provide various types of insurance and defined-contribution retirement plans, which workers can take with them from job to job and union to union.

“Members-only agreements are one way for unions to catch up to the 21st century, and several experts agree that the National Labor Relations Act allows for them,” Vernuccio said. “Unions should not be forced to provide services to anyone who does not want to be a part of the union and no one should be forced to accept representation from a union they do not want.”

Vernuccio warns, however, against a growing trend that could derail union reform called “worker centers,” which are often used to recruit nonunion workers to intimidate job creators and other workers.

“Worker centers are often used to intimidate employers into accepting a neutrality agreement, which can then lead to a card-check election to unionize a company’s workforce,” he said. “As we saw in (the November) elections, unions are no longer the political force they once were. They instead should be focused on maintaining the sanctity and privacy of the secret ballot.”

Vernuccio specifically points to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ training facility in southeast Michigan as an example of how unions can make work training a fundamental service provided to members.

“There are about 11 million people unemployed in America, but 4 million unfilled jobs,” he said. “These types of apprenticeship programs could appeal to young people who need the skills training in order to get a job.”

Merit pay and the ability for workers to negotiate their own wages based on performance are also concepts unions must embrace if they want to stem their decline.

“The Major League Baseball Players Association, for example, negotiates a basic minimum salary and represents members in grievances, but it allows individual players to negotiate other terms in their individual contracts.”

The full study can be found at

(Ted O’Neil is Media Relations manager for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Midland.)