Organized labor's widely publicized protests at the recent World Trade Organization meetings in Seattlereveal its dual situation in the United States and in many other parts of the globe.
On the one hand, unions showed that they can flex their economic and political muscle by orchestrating massdemonstrations. On the other hand, it is precisely because of organized labor's deteriorating position inthe workplace that protests against relaxed trade barriers are so viscerally important to it.
Today unions may claim fewer than one in 10 private-sector employees as members in the U.S.workforce. Labor's presence continues to shrink amid powerful economic pressures that have resulted,in part, in the exodus of high-paying manufacturing - and unionized - jobs. The forces of economicrestructuring and global interdependence cannot be stopped.
Under these circumstances, the question of what the 21st century holds for unions becomes an interestingone. Are we witnessing the gasps of a dinosaur on the brink of extinction? Or are unions capable of rebounding?
A simple extrapolation of present trends indicates a further erosion in union membership as a percentage of thelabor force. The U.S. labor movement is being "governmentalized" as a growing portion of the rank and file comefrom the public sector.
Signs of Energy
But labor is not a passive institution. It has, of late, shown signs of renewed energy and militancy. Union leadersof today are more aggressive and sophisticated than in the memorable past.
What will unions look like in the coming years?
First, unions will continue to undergo significant institutional transformations. Governing structures will bedemocratized. Leadership and membership will become more demographically diverse. Resources will bechanneled more to grassroots organizing and political efforts. Alliances will be formed among unions and theirinternational counterparts as well as with other politically and socially active groups.
Second, unions will project a more militant but increasingly image-conscious presence. Organizing efforts will betargeted at employers vulnerable to "bad practices" charges that play well with the public. At the same time, laborwill become more flexible in its willingness to cooperate strategically with corporations that show an interest inpartnering.
New Forms of Representation
Third, new forms of union representation are likely to emerge. Ways will be sought to leverage the advantagethat unions may have in identifying, training, and assimilating an increasingly mobile workforce. A "professional" modelof representation, in the health care and other industries, will prosper. The emphasis will be on representingprofessional or job-duty interests as much as economic gain. Greater exploration of representation of employeesthrough alternative dispute resolution will be pursued.
Finally, unions will continue to push a bold political agenda. The agenda will focus on liberalizing labor law to easethe process of organizing workers and making previously exempt workers such as independent contractorseligible for union protections.
Look for clusters of professional independent contractors - physicians, information technologists, engineers,accountants, financial analysts - to form, with unions offering a menu of representational services within and outsidethe confines of collective bargaining and exclusive representation.
Look, in short, for a more protean, organizationally rationalized, and public-image-conscious labor movement tosurface. One thing is certain: employers will be confronted and challenged as they have not been over the pastseveral decades. They will be confronted with organizing campaigns and challenged to cooperate in a way thatlooks a lot like strategic comanagement.
Marick F. Masters is a professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh.