If there's one thing the United States isn't famous for, it's unions. And there's a reason for this. While in the mid-1950s a third of Americans were members of a trade union, this share has now been reduced to 10.5%, of which 6.4% are private sector workers. A worrying decline, made worse by the recent abolition by the US Supreme Court of the costs of registering these associations: according to the American justice system, charging a tax to entities recognized as political actors is against the Constitution.
Of course, however, the impact of this drastic reduction in enrolments is not only reflected in union revenue. According to statistics, while workers who are part of a trade union enjoy higher salaries, better benefits and more solid redress if they are treated unfairly, on the other hand the decline in enrolments would be largely responsible for the increase in social inequalities within American society, as well as the dramatic drop in election turnout by lower-income workers. This phenomenon accentuates the exclusion of workers from any kind of political debate (and decision-making process).
But how do unions work in the US? To date, the American trade union system is structured on a corporate basis, where the employees themselves (at least 30%) sign petitions in order to organize themselves in a "union". The limitations of this type of structure are obvious: limited representation, rights and benefits vary depending on the company in which you work, and poor growth (statistically, the presence of the union within the company entails higher costs for the employer, who therefore hires fewer people). The structure is called “enterprise-leveling bargaining”.
To the cry of “Unions for all”, candidates like Bernie Sanders and Beto O'Rourke have declared their support for a trade union organization that is not internal to business, but on a national scale.
In Europe, however, the situation has always been very different, starting with the fact that in virtually all European countries trade unions count on much higher percentages of workers than in the United States. In Denmark, Sweden and Finland, more than two-thirds of workers were part of a trade union in 2013. In France and Austria, 98% of workers are part of a national collective agreement. The representation of trade unions is outside the individual companies, protecting the whole category. This approach, which involves unions negotiating national contracts, thus requiring the wages and benefits of workers in the same industry to be the same for everyone, is called “sectoral bargaining”.
Given that the European model of worker representation works much better, in the US fortunately people have understood the need for change: to the cry of “Unions for all”, candidates like Bernie Sanders and Beto O'Rourke have declared their support for a trade union organization that is not internal to business, but on a national scale. The move from a so-called “enterprise-level bargaining” to a “sectoral bargaining”, in fact, would benefit everyone. And that's exactly what happened in New York, where fast food workers teamed up with a “wage commission” to demand a minimum wage of 15 dollars an hour. Some U.S. states, such as California, New Jersey, and Colorado already have similar patterns in their legislative system, while others provide for them only for specific categories, such as minors.
But there's more. In order to regain a representation worthy of such name, according to experts, trade unions in the US should embrace new initiatives such as workers' councils, where special elected committees would take charge of defending the rights of salaried workers and resolving disputes with the administration in individual companies, or processes of electing their own representatives within the company's board of directors. Some already have clear projects on a national scale: one example is the Center for American Progress's Madland, which suggests the establishment of wage commissions for each industry.
If the unions also took charge of the funds (paid by employers) for vacations, health permits and workers' health insurance, the “partial-workers” of companies such as Uber and the like could also be protected.
The transition to the European system and the presence of national contracts, however, in themselves would not be sufficient to ensure that workers' rights are fully respected (also because the presence of trade union contracts for all, members of the trade unions and not, would not would encourage union membership). In order to promote membership to the “union”, therefore, it would take a further step: the adoption of the “Ghent system”, named after the Belgian town that first introduced it, and which now underpins the aforementioned examples of Finland, Sweden and Denmark. This would be the union's management of unemployment benefits in a supplementary way to the state: everyone would be entitled to a form of protection, but members of a trade union would be entitled to greater benefits. Under a similar system, the percentage of union members in the United States is expected to easily go back to at least 30%.
And there’s more: under the proposal of Rolf, the president of Seiu, a Seattle union, if the unions also took charge of the funds (paid by employers) for vacations, health permits and workers' health insurance, it could also protect the “partial-workers” of companies like Uber and the like, giving the chance to enjoy “mobile” benefits between jobs. This would be a new and profoundly transformative novelty in the conception of work (in the United States and beyond, actually).
In the United States, it is perhaps still premature and hard to think of upheavals on this scale, especially while the Republican government is in place. But as elections approach, the debate is ongoing in a number of areas, including labor. Many candidates are making labor one of their key levers in the election campaign: is it the advent of a new era?