Labor Unions are Dead…or at Least on Life Support

Editor's note: The view expressed in the following article are those of its author and not necessarily those of Becker's Hospital Review.

The labor movement in America is barely alive, and it‘s looking for life-saving measures from Congress, the National Labor Relations Board and distracted employers. The chronic disease afflicting labor unions, particularly in healthcare, is that they have become irrelevant to most working people today. There are two reasons this phenomena has occurred.

First, during the last fifteen years, healthcare leadership overall has improved at managing employee relationships and understanding that in order to cultivate employees that are engaged in and committed to the organization, the leadership team needs to be aligned, engaged and committed to its employees.

Since 1995, the attitudes of almost 2 million healthcare employees who have participated in the MSA HR Capital Employee and Leadership Engagement Survey have shown a steady improvement towards trust in leadership and overall satisfaction in the workplace. This trend is directly tied to a changing approach to leadership and moving away from the historical command and control model, and instead encouraging participation and driving decision making down, facilitating more open communication and, most importantly, valuing employees as partners in the success of the organization. This new transformational leadership approach fosters professional adult relationships among all who work in the organization — employees, leadership, and physicians.

A second factor contributing to the labor movement‘s growing irrelevance stems from generational changes sweeping across the nation. Simply put, Generation Y employees do not see labor unions as a viable solution to any workplace issues they may have.

For a union to be successful in organizing new workplaces, it needs two conditions: 1) a sizeable number of employees who are dissatisfied; and 2) a desire to want to stay in their current job. Although this sounds contradictory, a union is dependent on employees who would rather stay in a negative workplace than deal with the fear and unknown associated with changing jobs — a characteristic shared by most Baby Boomers. Generation Y employees think just the opposite; if the job is not working out for them, they are very comfortable leaving for a new opportunity. This generational dynamic requires a union to overcome a significant barrier by trying to sell more complex social justice ideas rather than focus on traditional employee concerns. This generational shift is clear and is likely to cause further diminishment of the perceived benefit of unions in the workplace as Generation Y becomes a more dominant percentage of the workforce attributed to different generational groups, and as the number of Generation Y employees increase in the workplace, the role of unions correspondingly diminishes.

Another symptom of the failing health of unions is how seldom a union is successful in gaining membership when there is a structured and persuasive effort by leadership to inform employees of the risk and consequences of unionization. Employees are more skeptical towards unions and are willing to think through their decisions more so than in the past. If provided with timely, persuasive information, employees are willing to see through the union‘s false promises and their sales‘ pitch. The only areas where unions show signs of resuscitation are where employers either agree not to provide persuasive information to employees under what is known as a neutrality agreement, or where leadership loses focus or places too low of a priority on keeping employees informed. Employers clearly have certain rights and responsibilities when it pertains to their employees. Under federal labor law, employers have the right to try and persuade employees to their point of view, and they have a responsibility to protect the rights of employees, especially for those who do not want to be represented. By being neutral or remaining silent, leadership fails to meet that responsibility.

Experience clearly shows that employers who proactively include educational information on employees rights under federal labor law and the realities of union representation into their business strategy are much more successful at not only remaining union free, but in creating a valuable professional adult relationship between leadership and employees.

Although unions are barely clinging to life as a relevant part of our workplace society, it is too early to write their obituary. Many specialists have been working on improving the health of labor unions and they are motivated to keep their patients alive and well, and they will continue their efforts. One current strategy aimed at breathing life back into labor unions and breaking through labor‘s biggest barrier — the reluctance amongst the majority of well-informed employees to turn their individual rights over to union leadership — is to create an environment even more lenient for union organizing. Congress proposed to make it easier for unions to bypass the employees‘ true feelings by creating quick‘ elections or eliminating elections all together. Congress also attempted to try and keep employers from exercising their right of free speech articulated in the National Labor Relations Act by creating extensive penalties if employers had a breach of conduct. The harshness of these penalties was not simply to deter unlawful behavior or create a more even field, but clearly designed to create a chilling effect on employers who fear saying anything for risk of overwhelming costs. All of these actions demonstrate Congressional and union supporters recognize that if employees do not have full knowledge and understanding of what it means to turn rights over to a union, the union‘s one-sided message sells much more easily, and the union‘s chance to gain some additional life (i.e., membership) dramatically increases.

With the Employee Free Choice Act (once viewed as the potential savior of the labor movement) perceived dead, but which was the initial treatment plan for the ailing unions, the task now falls on the newly structured National Labor Relations Board and its substantial ability to shape labor organizing activity through its rule-making authority. With strongly pro-union activists on the board, the last few months have seen a flurry of activity designed to breathe life back into union organizing. The NLRB is driven to make decisions on almost all the cases before them to make it easier for unions to coerce and persuade employees. Armed with the opportunity to make decisions of nearly every labor petition and labor situation that arises, even seemingly minor changes can have a significant cumulative impact. If the NLRB continues down its current path, it is quite possible unions will have the opportunity to regain their strength and be poised to take over the rights of all employees before any thoughtful consideration is made. The current NLRB leadership is so concerned about the quickly diminishing health of unions that they have declared a trauma situation and are not just waiting for cases to come before them to decide, rather they are soliciting specific actions so that they can pump life back into the unions quickly, before it may be too late.

As union membership has declined steadily in recent decades (barely 7 percent of the U.S. private sector workforce vs. over 35 percent forty years ago) with unions not dominating the workplace, employee relations and the percentage of highly engaged employees have increased over the years. This shows that NLRB‘s actions are not designed to improve the workplace or to create a more engaged workforces, but simply to make union organizing easier. To the unprepared employer and uninformed employee, a resuscitated union movement could fundamentally reverse much of the progress made in improving the work relationship that has occurred over the years. Labor unions need to create mistrust and disengagement to survive and be healthy, so to improve the health of unions will come at the expense of employees and employers alike.

Just like a patient who comes back stronger after a near death experience, unions may again become a serious threat to the modern approach to workplace management. The model we all aspire to achieve and work towards is one in which employees and leadership work together to achieve shared goals and where employees trust leadership - and more importantly, where leadership shows their trust in employees. A new and innovative approach is needed where leaders are not only well prepared to talk with employees about the risks and consequences of union representation, but where those conversations are a part of the regular communication of an organization. The NLRB and others are creating a new world where the historical antibiotics used to prevent the spread of the union virus may no longer be available or effective, especially once the disease has presented. A preventative medicine approach is needed more than ever to go beyond event-specific medical treatment to include regular, routine inoculations.

Kevin Haeberle is Senior Vice President and Senior Advisor in the MSA HR Capital practice of Integrated Healthcare Strategies. Mr. Haeberle may be contacted by calling 800.821.8481 or emailing

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