The Future of Labor Relations: It’s Not About The Unions

By Lance Haun

I got an e-mail a few weeks ago asking me for advice on an issue. They said:


I have been looking at job posts for my Dream Job and some list “Masters preferred.” Is this one of those preferred but really required? My end sight is to obtain a job here in Los Angeles in a specific area such as Labor Relations (union) or Compensation.

Now if you’ve read me long enough, you know that my views on job posts are that it depends on the company entirely. Some say Masters preferred because they actually mean it. Others don’t. It’s kind of silly. But that’s not what got my attention.

If you think labor relations is going to be about unions in a decade, you can think again.

The changing workforce

I know union leaders are pushing (and business leaders are freaking out about) the EFCA, but let’s face the fact that even if Employee Free Choice Act does eventually pass, it’s simply a desperate grab for more nails on the union’s coffin. It doesn’t represent a change in the union’s value proposition, how unions can actually impact positive change, or how it makes a union more attractive to workers. It just allows them to do more of the same with greater ease without changing anything.

Unions have been bleeding members because industry has been shifting for three decades in the U.S. Sure, grocery unions will whine about WalMart’s anti-union work, or the auto unions will cry about non-union, foreign-based U.S. auto plants sprouting up in the Midwest and Southeast, but picking up some of those employees for the union would simply mean a stop to the bleeding, not a strategy going forward.

Who sees that trend reversing because of the EFCA or any similar law on the books?

The real future

If unions survive, it will be because they change, not because of some pity legislation that they drove through (literally) by buying political capital. I’m not a union hater, but I hate the way unions have transformed the same way I hate how many businesses have transformed into “money first, at any cost” organizations. There’s a real disconnect between leaders and members that seems ironic given the language unions use to describe the relationship between employers and employees.

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I’m not betting on unions to change though. I think they will continue to ignore that they have a value proposition for desk jockeys and service workers alike that is going to be different than the role they played in manufacturing. But don’t tell them that.

The real future is going to play out in terms of technology, the “how” of work and globalization. And I know it is almost cliche to talk about globalization too, but when many universities are offering labor relations classes that focus exclusively on unions, and international business classes that focus on proper business etiquette rather than the real business decisions that will play out if you choose to take any part of your business global, it’s still an issue.

Labor relations 2020

Focusing on union-driven labor relations seems a lot like focusing on marketing horse-drawn carriages. At some point, that book has been written. The unions that exist now may still exist or slowly die but how you deal with them is no surprise anymore.

I think looking a decade out, you’re going to be asking:

  • Is a virtual workplace sustainable?
  • If most of our customers are in China, shouldn’t we be there?
  • Our marketing team is in Germany, our production is in the U.S. and our logistics are in India. How are we tying it all together? How do people share a common vision among even smaller businesses globalizing?

What’s your take? Who is talking about these issues in a serious (and applicable) manner?


3 Comments on “The Future of Labor Relations: It’s Not About The Unions

  1. Lance:
    I think you are statements are spot on. Unions are very resistant to changes in the workplace. I don’t think they will be able to adapt to virtual workplaces or global companies. Their strength is in the here and now. Flexible workplaces, the ability to work from anywhere are all difficult concepts to stick a union label to. How do you explain the necessity of forming a union to someone who works from home or can come and go as they please.

    But given that, they may not go away as quickly as some would like. There will still be a need for hotels to have housekeepers, medicinal marjuana suppliers to have growers, retail stores to have clerks and hospitals to have nurses. With the fact that these workers have to be in places together the unions will try to explain to them why they need a union. And who knows, poor employers may help that process along. So a much as I would like for their to be a union free world I think even by 2020 there will still be some around.

  2. You are underestimating the staying power of unions in several ways. EFCA is likely dead even now, but there are a lot of changes being implemented through administrative agencies like NLRB, NMB, and others that will tip the balance on organizing back to a more equal level over the next few years.

    Unions are winning more elections right now, and in the last 6 months, traditional organizing has increased significantly. In fact, the biggest recognition election ever conducted by the NLRB is taking place at Delta this week.

    There is also a significant evolution occurring that is flying under the radar. Labor unions and other grassroots groups are developing new relationships that I expect could lead to some new organizing opportunities over the next few years.

    I don’t disagree with your points in general. but I think your time line is a little short. Also, it doesn’t take into account the levels of organizing that will be seen in business sectors that can’t be off-shored like health care, food production, retail, food service, and government.

    1. I’d love to get your take on it, Michael. From what I’ve seen, they’ve done little to differentiate themselves from decades ago. That’s not good for them.

      They won’t disappear in a decade but the new challenges that organizations will face with them will not be particularly new. If you’ve got non-unionized segments in your airline, you’re probably at risk. I’ll cry about that more when the airlines aren’t subsidized massively by our government though. 🙂

      Government has shown that they will exempt themselves from business practices that everyone else needs to follow so I’m not worried about them. As for the other sectors, I welcome evidence that they are actually making aggressive strides towards unionizing those sectors.

      I’m sure they have an evil plan but I’m not sure that the plan is particularly unique or different than the past.

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