Unionization for the 21st Century: What It Is and What It Is Not

A new model for union representation is needed if unions are to stem the tide of declining membership. But the interests of individual workers should be at the front of the discussion of saving the labor movement. Labor reforms must be centered on the protection and advancement of workers as individuals.

The current industrial era, one-size–fits-all bargaining model is almost a century old. It leaves little room for cooperation and does not incentivize productivity or reward the best and brightest union members through things like merit pay.

Some labor scholars are recognizing this need and calling for a new form of unionism. Benjamin Sachs of Harvard Law School (and former assistant general counsel for the Service Employees International Union) and Catherine Fisk of the University of California-Irvine School of Law (and member of the SEIU Ethics Review Board) recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

Requiring unions to offer free representation to workers who do not want a union in the first place makes no sense. Nor does it make sense to have a system in which workers can benefit from union representation without paying their fair share.

So, to alleviate this double bind that courts would impose on unions and workers, we propose a simple reform: Unions should not be required to represent workers who do not want, and who decline to pay for, such representation.[4]

In order to revive the labor movement, unions need to go back to their original mission of representation in the workplace, but now the diverse needs of each individual worker must be at the center of that effort. This is no small task — unions will need to tailor their services to each individual worker, making his or her achievement paramount, and possibly even provide workers with a selection of choices — an a la carte model.