Thought of broadly the job of a union is to act on behalf of union members. Ideally the union acts within a cooperative, collaborative ecosystem including current and potential future employers – but always acting primarily for the benefit and on behalf of the union member.
German unions go beyond the “collective bargaining” role to act on behalf of workers and the economy for social, economical and even environmental goals, but particularly for labor market policy and professional education. While that requires a level of political power that US unions may not have any time soon, it is the premise of this blog that even German unions have envisioned their job too narrowly and failed to help prepare workers for new jobs with current and future employers.
Currently (union and non-union) workers are hurting. There are not enough jobs. Many of the newest jobs require skills that did not exist before or mixes of skill that were not required together. For old and new jobs its not easy to learn new skills, or to be recognized as having skills you do have without experience using those skills on the job. Less skilled jobs pay less.
Workers need organizations that can support them in navigating the rapidly changing world, organizations that know what the new skills are and are dedicated in working on behalf of workers to help them obtain those skills. Unions have been traditionally focused on the jobs and skills that change the slowest. If unions are to regain power and help workers they have to being to focus on new jobs and new skills. They also have to focus more on helping the worker become more marketable. If unions represent more marketable workers, the union job becomes easier. The most important job that unions have is to ensure that the workers they represent are better trained, more productive and more adaptable to new work. If a union can make that true for their members, the collective bargaining job becomes trivial – bargaining from a greater position of strength.
This “farther outside the box” role of the union becomes different than how most unions envision themselves. It will require more long term thinking. I will have more to say about can reshape their operations and contracts both with companies and with union members to accomplish this.