America, today, faces an economic challenge which it has never faced in all of its 225 years of existence: How to address the accelerating development of technology in the work place.Except for the few times during which America experienced economic down turns the availability of good jobs and good pay for the broad spectrum of its population has been the envy of the world. Generally speaking, and not until recently, there has always been agreement among America’s leaders that capitalism, not necessarily unrestrained, creates wealth and thereby opportunity for work. The Constitution of the United States of America, America’s most important founding document, promotes the concept of limited government allowing whatever else, economic or social or religious, to thrive, and also to be destroyed, without the directorial hand of an overarching government to proverbially pick winners and losers.
Speak to any immigrant, from any country, and ask “Why did you come to America?” and he or she more than likely will respond with one word, “Work.” I suppose as Americans we would prefer to hear something else, perhaps “Freedom.” But truth be told being able to work where you want, at what you want and how you want provides all the freedom that one requires to be truly free. The right to vote in a country that does not provide work is not truly a free country.
Over the last 5 years more than 20M people have remained out of work representing, at a minimum, 13% of the work force. This condition of protracted unemployment is unusual in this country and is indicative of something structural rather than a temporary glitch in a perceived America as an economic powerhouse. In my previous article entitled the Future of Unions: Part I, I referred to the leadership of private sector unions in their response to the opening of world labor markets and its competitive effect upon the American workforce as, among other characteristics, feckless and confused. But it would be unfair to blame this same union leadership for the current troubles of decreasing union membership in this economic environment of advancing technology.
Work in America, as well as throughout the world, is becoming divergent. The advent of technology in the work place requires highly skilled, employees conversant in math and/or language.Technology also suffers the presence of low skilled, undereducated workers, and thereby low paid, to perform the usual menial jobs that humanoid robots could perform but are, as of yet, in the inchoate stages of development. This is a harsh truth. However, low skilled, undereducated workers in America know this truth. In fact, because they experience the deleterious effects of this truth every working day, they are despondent, angry and perhaps, even more unsettling, unpredictable.
Union leadership, in this country,especially in the private sector economy, is flummoxed. Organizing the highly skilled is near to impossible for many obvious reasons, the most important of which is that the highly skilled do not see themselves as being represented by individuals who do not share their level of education, their values or their experiences. Organizing low skilled employees presents even greater challenges for the union leadership. In the prior years of union organizing employees who manifested an interest in having union representation were vulnerable to being fired, notwithstanding, unlawfully. Today the fear is not being fired, which offers some protection pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act, but rather being replaced by a machine. The cruel fact is that technology has reached a level of sophistication unmatched in the history of work and when employers weigh the benefits of introducing unfettered technology into the work place as against the inconvenience of an unpredictable, low skilled, and reactionary human the choice becomes obvious.
I appreciate that what is being written here may be for some uncomfortable to accept if not downright offensive. But this article has to do with the future of unions and as you can see from my above description, there is no future. Not unless union leadership, while it has the monetary resources, begins to reinvent the purposes of private sector unions and the role they play in the American economy.
This article is nothing more than my brief opinion and is not meant to explore the myriad of ways private sector unions may be able to address the problems which I have described. Moreover I will let those who have a vested interest in unions’ success to deal with those problems. But I have one idea.Research shows that the education that colleges provide today is not necessarily relevant to work, unless the student is proficient in math and language. Colleges today are expensive and in more cases than not useless in finding a job. They leave young people with the world ahead of them burdened with extraordinary debt which they have no means to repay. However by increasing the level of vocational skills among those who have no interest in attending collegeworkers can delay the inevitable onslaught of technology in the work place. Private sector unions, with their vast economic resources, instead of using that money to manipulate the political and social systems of the country should expand the apprentice programs found prevalent in the construction industry into the manufacturing and service industries.for their members, only. Just a thought.