The recent “right to work” legislation in Michigan may be the latest challenge to labor unions’ relevancy in the 21st century – but let’s not write the obituary for labor unions just yet. They can remain relevant, vibrant components of this current century if – and this is key – if they can support workers’ need by helping their members craft longer, more productive careers.
A century ago, it was a fine idea for labor unions to help workers reach a concrete retirement age with good benefits. But now, as we routinely live well into our 80s and 90s, unions need to develop and evolve their mission so that they can help members stay valuable to employers throughout their historically long lives. In fact, if unions can become the leaders in turning an aging workforce into a productive workforce, they have the potential to re-establish themselves as an indispensible ingredient to this country’s growth and competitiveness.
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So what precisely can unions to do promote long, healthy careers?
A key component is education – ongoing, life-long, never-stop-learning education. This isn’t the “adult education” programs of yesterday, but an entirely new approach to education that re-thinks the purpose, goals, and time-frame of learning.
Applied to the current situation in Detroit, or even Athens, labor unions should find ways to make their members the smartest, most up-to-date laborers in the world. For the United Auto Workers Union and others to become an indispensible part of the Motor City’s 21st century economic success story, they need to become training grounds for workers throughout their long working lives.
As Michigan’s Governor Richard Snyder has said, this “right to work” legislation is an opportunity for labor unions to re-establish their value proposition. There is no greater value the union could have to individuals, businesses and society than helping people remain vital as they age.
If unions can achieve this goal, they would become not inimical to but perfectly aligned with the interests of business and government – and, in the process, a huge social asset. Productive aging is in everyone’s best interest, and both pro-union and right-to-work advocates would be wise to recognize as much. Real, valuable and sustainable progress can be made here if the debate addresses this issue.
Indeed, with the right thought leadership, this is a ground upon which the two divisive sides might unite.
It will be a shame if the upheaval in Michigan subsides back into politics-as-usual. We’ve seen similar promise fizzle out in Wisconsin, in Ohio, and across Europe. This is one of those situations in which everyone keeps trying to answer the wrong question. The demographics of the 21st century turn everything about 20th century labor on its head. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in and of itself. But, with the right leadership, and innovative ideas, it can become a victory for both unions and right-to-work advocates.