Approximately one in ten American employees belong to a union. Most unions are focused on what they did a hundred years ago – protecting jobs and ensuring the safety of their members.

But, are unions doing their job? Over the last fifty years, labor law has become increasingly more sophisticated and forms a shield of justice that does a much better job of protecting workers against discrimination, safety violations, harassment and systemic abuse. If anyone doubts the impact of flipping on the light of labor law on the modern workplace, witness the departures of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and today, co-President Bill Shine at Fox News. We also find a lengthy history of labor unions doing more to smother sexual harassment grievances rather than systematically resolving them.

But, here is the gnarly, frightening problem with the majority of today’s unions. Most of them are focused on protecting their turf rather than protecting the future of their members. Most are centered on protecting the jobs of the past rather than educating their members in how to remain relevant as technology changes life as we know it.

For example, the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Worker Union) has 1,271,150 members and last year collected over 281 million in dues. Over 3.4 million of America’s workers are cashiers. Their biggest threat isn’t just technology, it is disengagement. The technology has existed for over ten years that will allow all of us to walk out of a grocery or department store without engaging with a cashier. In our neighborhood, we typically drive three miles to a grocery store with non-union workers because they talk to us and smile. When an item is missing on a shelf, someone runs and looks for it. In the store three hundred yards from our home, unionized cashiers complain about their work, gossip with each other, rarely look customers in the eye and act as if working with a view of the Pacific Ocean is a bitter pill to swallow. I would happily walk my cart through that store without looking at one disengaged worker and take a five dollar discount to bag my own groceries. That reality is actually coming towards retail like a tidal wave. Pay more for a smile and a kind face or do it yourself.

In this scenario, unions do more harm than good because they foster the illusion they are taking care of their members. However, out of the UCFW’s huge budget, I can’t find any training programs around engagement, change management or developing a positive attitude. In the technology field, their “Twenty Four Seven Training Centre” offers one Microsoft 2007 Excel Level 1 worksheet course!

The only unions we can find that are practicing any meaningful and real support in keeping their members relevant is in the entertainment and media industry. Here unions are constantly teaching new technology, offering classes, teaching emerging professions and even providing mentorship.

Accelerating change is creating a crisis in every industry & virtually every way that we live. Click To Tweet

Accelerating change is creating a crisis in every industry and virtually every way that we live. For those of us who’ve shifted from survival and predictability to building our security through growth, this is an exciting time to be alive and to work. For the union worker who dutifully follows orders and pays the dues, something is terribly wrong.

Perhaps it is the time that union members picket their union headquarters.

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David Harder
DAVID founded Inspired Work in 1990, which has helped over 42,000 professionals transform their relationship towards work. Individuals from all walks of life attend Inspired Work’s public programs to launch new careers, new business or to become more successful in their existing role. He views work as a profound opportunity to become more fulfilled, contributive and effective. Mr. Harder’s leadership, employee engagement, executive development and social networking programs are used in a wide variety of organizations including The Walt Disney Company, HBO, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, The United Church of Religious Science, Morgan Stanley, and many others. Inspired Work’s leadership programs, career development and team building programs produce some of the worlds most outstanding satisfaction numbers in any business: 92.6% out of a hundred. David has appeared on many business and human-interest programs including CNN, KTLA News, KFWB News and Business News Network. David’s book, new book, The Workplace Engagement Solution (Career Press) offers an entire “crack-the-code” approach to engagement.
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Ken Vincent
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Good points, David. However, it leaves much unsaid. With the huge amounts of money involved large unions have quite predictably drawn the interest of underground elements. Unions that “serve” the workers at the docks, the steelworkers, automotive industry, truckers, and even the AFL/CIO have a long history of ties to unsavory elements. Those ties have even been used to swing elections. Then there is the question of should an employee be forced to pay union dues even though he/she doesn’t choose to join the union? Right to work sites seems to be gaining traction on this issue.

I have worked with several unions over the years. Do they protect the employees? Not really. Do they get better pay/benefits for their members? Not in my experience. Many times I would have given larger raises than the union settled for if not saddled with the work rules and needless hearings that came with the unions.

There was a time in the past where unions served a purpose, not so today.