The Future of Unions?

John O'Leary, long-time facilitator for Tom Peters Company, has provided the offering below. It looks likely to stir up some discussion. Thank you, John, for this post:

The Future of Unions?

If you haven't heard much about Andy Stern, the upstart president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), that will soon change. The introduction to him this month at the Human Resoures Outsourcing (HRO) World Conference in New York was reminiscent of Jon Landau's I-have-seen-the-future-of-rock-and-roll introduction of Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s: "I have seen the future of unions—and its name is Andy Stern."

Head of the largest and fastest growing union in the U.S. (1.8 million workers) Stern has a knack for headline-grabbing quotes such as "This generation of American workers will be the first ever to have a worse quality of life than their parents." His criticisms of Wal*Mart in particular are withering, and his regular blogging at sites such as unitetowin.org and purpleocean.org keeps up the heat. But what makes Stern distinct as a union leader—aside from his embrace of blogging journals and his savvy understanding of branding—is his apparent endorsement of globalization and outsourcing.

Recent comments that "Unions could be this country's largest HR outsourcers" (HRO Today, April, 2005) has certainly gained him some attention. And his actions back it up. With New York City janitors, the SIEU took over HR functions such as pension admin, health plans, severance and outplacement admin, training, etc. As reported in HRO Today, the employers got a more reliable, better-trained workforce, and the employees got higher wages and respectable benefits. But to accomplish this on a larger scale Stern wants to see "denser" union participation in different industries to gain greater standardization of wages and benefits through a "risk-sharing partnership" with business.

Is this the future of unions? Is it a capitulation to the "enemy"? (Many of the respondents on his own SIEU website feel he is supporting a "false brotherhood of labor and capital.") Stern admits, "I'm no Marxist. I'm a Farrellist—a big fan of McKinsey economist Diana Farrell's globalization theories." Farrell feels that protectionism is a misguided response to the problems/opportunities of offshoring/outsourcing, and points out that for a fraction of the savings from offshoring, companies could offer a generous safety net for employees. Stern endorses this, and says unions could play a partnership role in this.

Let the debate begin!