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The past 20 years have seen a significant “decline in union membership, and recent developments suggest that this trend will continue into the future. From 1983 to 2012, union membership fell by almost one half, declining from 20.1 percent of the workforce to 11.3 percent, with this decline being concentrated almost entirely in the private sector. Recent passage of ‘right-to-work’ laws in states like Indiana and Michigan will continue to erode unions’ power over the next decade. At the same time, states facing increasing financial pressure are seeking ways to limit public sector unions’ power, including the creation of laws such as the one passed by Wisconsin last year.

Monica Bielski Boris, assistant professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations

A lesson of American history is that unions “formed, grew, and survived in a hostile legal

labor union representation is costly. Is it worth the cost? Depends on how enlightened management is. Enlightened managers understand it’s in their best interests to treat labor well—and if they do so, labor unions aren’t needed because happy employees don’t form labor unions. Most likely it comes down to trust. Even if management planned to treat labor well, labor has to trust management to do so. Otherwise, employees form labor unions to substitute for that trust—to insure that management treats labor well.

order. Predictions of organized labor’s doom notwithstanding, workers will continue to join together to improve life on the job. Traditional forms of union representation and collective bargaining will increasingly be supplemented with independent mechanisms for providing legal, educational, social, and other services to workers. Unions will also develop more extensive international alliances and networks to advocate for workers in a complex global labor market. A decade from now, the labor movement will remain critical to our democracy and to a fair market economy.

Gregory Northcraft, professor of business administration and Harry J. Gray Professor of Executive Leadership




like to think that a decade from “nowI would there will be NO labor unions. After all,

Wilma Liebman, former member and chair of the National Labor Relations Board and former visiting professor of law at the University of Illinois

Labor unions are in decline, perhaps due to shifts in American politics or economic globalization that make U.S. workers compete with workers in China, India, and other emerging nations. Just recently, The NY Times reported that ‘Unions represent just 7 percent of workers in corporate America, one-quarter the level in the 1960s.’ But ‘down’ is not ‘out,’ given natural variations over time in a continually shifting economy. Manufacturing has certainly declined, and new high-tech industries have emerged, but unions may have growing importance in those new industries and in the public sector.

Don Fullerton, Gutgsell Professor of Finance and Institute of Government and Public Affairs

Collective bargaining took root because firms gained from the relationship in skill retention or had little choice, given labor’s strategic situation. Today, management sees less to gain and unions have lost strategic situation. Unions must either find new sources of leverage or new ways of adding value. On the former, international union and community alliances are taking shape, especially for the low waged. But on the latter, until stockholders see demonstrable value added—in productivity and quality—management will continue to resist the loss of its unilateral power. A significant increase in union density is not in prospect, yet.

Matthew Finkin, professor of law

Perspectives SPRING 2013

Nolan Miller, professor of finance and Julian Simon Faculty Fellow

Labor unions will continue to build coalitions with other organizations and groups interested in the advancement of working people in order to build a larger social movement. Unions will no longer solely rely on traditional forms of representing workers based on employer-specific collective bargaining agreements and instead will advocate for workers more broadly by continuing the work of building partnerships with worker centers and organizing associational members. Labor’s political efforts to elect workerfriendly candidates and to pass legislation promoting the interests of the workers will intensify, particularly at the state and local levels.







Perspectives - Spring 2013  
Perspectives - Spring 2013  

Perspectives magazine is published by the College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. ON THE COVER: The makers hold...