New Unionization, Upskilling And The Future Of Work


Daphne Kis, CEO, WorldQuant University.

Organized labor continues to gain support in the U.S. Public support for unions is at its highest rate since 1965, and union election petitions grew 57% in the first half of the fiscal year. Predictably, many companies—particularly those directly impacted by recent union drives—have reacted with pushback or even hostility.

Corporate leaders have largely responded to the new unionization with reactive, knee-jerk responses reminiscent of old patterns of labor struggle. But these emergent unions are a new kind of beast.

Some of the most recent union activity is worker-driven, hyper-local and open to innovation. And crucially, they are no longer beholden to the traditional forms and practices of organized labor.

Union-skeptical employers should reconsider. They may discover a unique opportunity to redefine the traditional contours of employer/employee bargaining. In particular, workers and businesses should take this moment to partner around the issue of education and forge new agreements about employer-provided training and reskilling.

Not Your Grandfather’s Union Movement

The New Unionization is not a reiteration of previous models. On the contrary, recent organizers have achieved success precisely by breaking with old norms and reimagining what a labor movement could look like.

In the past, organized labor was driven by large, central trade unions that coordinated unionization drives, dictated member demands and distributed benefits. By contrast, the new wave of labor organizations is spearheaded by reform-minded individuals who want opportunities to improve their places of employment. Notably, these small grassroots unions have successfully attracted members even as large traditional unions have failed to do so.

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Critics of labor unions have described labor organizations as a “third party,” interfering in the relationship between employers and employees. These new unions are something else: an organically-arising coalition of employees organizing themselves at a local level. As this movement gains momentum, unions may be uniquely positioned to help employers and employees partner around issues that will benefit industries as a whole.

New Arrangements For A Changing Workforce

Historically, many of the largest, most visible union movements have been connected with industrial-era job sectors: the Teamsters, United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers and others. Many of the recently formed unions, on the other hand, are specific to one company or brand, with the Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks Workers United being two of the most well-known.

In traditional union agreements, which grew out of industrial production and apprenticeship models, raises and promotions were based on seniority, using time served as a proxy for skill or “merit.” This approach, however, is inadequate to deal with the demands of today’s global information economy, which demands continual upskilling on the part of workers.

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New unions, forming in new sectors and according to the specific needs of a single employer, have the opportunity to negotiate contractual arrangements that balance an emphasis on worker power with an emphasis on worker skills. As true job security can only be generated by continued education and training, this is in the interest of all parties.

Labor’s Role In Lifetime Learning

Emergent unions in the U.S. have an opportunity to join a global movement toward organized demands for continuing education and reskilling opportunities. The UN’s International Labor Organization, for example, has advocated for the role of trade unions in promoting skills training worldwide. In the words of Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General: “We need to replenish skills throughout a working career, and this calls for revisiting the models and concept of lifelong learning to create the future we want.”

A great deal of evidence suggests that upskilling and reskilling programs are more successful when they are supported and encouraged from the “bottom up” by union groups. First of all, union support of skills training programs can help ensure employee buy-in. This is especially true when unions collaborate with employers on shaping those programs. Unions are often especially well-positioned to help identify reskilling needs, support cultures of continuing education and even forge collective learning agreements. Indeed, a comprehensive TUAC report on skill training programs across multiple countries found that union involvement boosts the effectiveness and sustainability of skills training systems.

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In the U.S., unions have a particular role in lobbying for retraining programs—not only employer-provided educational opportunities but also enhanced funding for government-backed programs.

The “new labor movement” has the chance to demand agreements around continuing education and reskilling that would benefit all parties and maintain the relevance and technological readiness of the industry.

Final Thoughts

Business leaders have long been critical or suspicious of labor unions. But in principle, organized worker movements have the potential to address the skills gap from the bottom up by nurturing a culture of lifelong learning and shifting the basis of compensation away from a simplistic model that only takes factors like seniority into account and doesn’t reflect the current and future realities of work.

In order to truly transform work culture, a top-down approach is not sufficient. Today’s business leaders need to move past old assumptions about industrial-age unions and create new partnerships that can equip the workforce for the digital era.


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