United States: Labor Unions Are Increasingly Focused On The Future Of Work

Seyfarth Synopsis: As the future of work continues to take shape, labor unions are taking notice and adjusting their strategies and their focus in response. To the extent they haven't already, companies both large and small should take heed and consider adjusting their employee and labor relations approaches accordingly.

Just over two years ago, the AFL-CIO formed its own Commission on the Future of Work and Unions. In announcing the Commission's formation, the AFL-CIO stated that "[t]he rich and the powerful are driving large-scale changes in the nature of work, including digitization, automation, deindustrialization, deprofessionalization, autonomous operations, globalization, offshoring and the impact of trade agreements—all of which threaten to leave working families with even less clout and economic security," and that this makes "the mission and values of the labor movement more important than ever." The Commission has various subcommittees corresponding to particular sectors of the economy, including health care, energy, service and retail, transportation, and professionals.

Recently, the Commission published its first written report, which is available on the AFL-CIO's website. The report makes a number of sweeping assertions, including the following:

  • "[A]nti-worker interests are trying to wipe unions out of existence...The labor movement is the last line of defense standing in the way of total corporate control."
  • "Emerging business models have encouraged management to wash its hands of any responsibility for workers."
  • "America's workers, particularly young people, are tired of being silenced, working harder and harder and still falling behind. We are hungry for connection to each other, so we can influence the decisions that will shape the future of our workplaces, our communities, our nation and our world."
  • "[T]hriving unions are good for America, and at this moment of massive inequality, technological revolution and historic collective action, our role has never been more important."
  • "Whether our future is one of shared prosperity or rising inequality, and social and economic dysfunction, depends on the strength of working people's bargaining power."

The report states that key aims for the labor movement should be to strengthen worker bargaining power and to make sure the benefits of technological change are shared broadly. On this latter point, the report says that predictions that artificial intelligence and other new technologies will make workers more productive have generated interest in the prospect of a "leisure dividend" that allows for the reduction of overall work hour without any reduction in pay. The Commission's service and retail subcommittee therefore recommends mobilizing around issues such as bargaining or legislating four-day workweeks, paid time off, and the "right to disconnect" from digital services and work.

The report also notes that a key action plan for the labor movement is to dramatically expand union membership, and that new and diverse forms of cooperation and multi-union focus on coordinated, sectoral strategies are needed to organize more workers. Sectoral bargaining, which is aimed at collective bargaining covering entire industries rather than individual companies, is aggressively being pushed by the SEIU, which is behind the Fight for $15 movement. As it happens, the President of the SEIU was recently named by California's Governor as co-chair of the California Future of Work Commission, which was established just a few months ago with the goal of developing "a new social compact for California workers, based on an expansive vision for economic equity that takes work and jobs as the starting point."

The AFL-CIO Commission report also recommends that unions collectively form an advisory task force aimed at deploying the most sophisticated data collection, analysis, and experimental techniques "to understand what working people want and to suggest how we retool to meet those needs and desires." The report also notes that new forms of social media and digital communications have made identifying, communicating with, and assisting potential union supporters easier, and that unions have made major investments in digital staff and resources to keep up with new technologies and new ways to engage working people. The report also recommends that unions develop a coordinated public narrative about union members and union representation, including in new and expanding sectors.

In light of the increased focus by unions on the future of work and their stated goal of dramatically expanding union membership, including in new and expanding sectors, companies of all sizes and in all industries should take heed and consider adjusting their employee relations strategies accordingly. To the extent that workers at non-unionized companies don't have much of a voice in issues that affect their day-to-day working lives, companies should consider establishing initiatives aimed at giving them more of a voice. This will potentially avoid the prospect of workers seeking assistance on such matters from unions, or of falling prey to promises by union organizers to fix such issues. Many workers also don't understand all of the negative aspects that can come along with bringing in a union. Non-union companies should therefore consider implementing strategies to educate their workers on these subjects. Managers and supervisors should also be trained to recognize the signs of union organizing activity, and on what to do if they see such signs. And finally, companies should consider providing positive employee relations training for their managers and supervisors, which can head off union organizing activity before it starts.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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