Spotlight Exclusives

Giving Unions a Greater Role in Training, Enforcement, and Benefits Provision Would be Good for Workers and the Public

David Madland and Malkie Wall, Center for American Progress David Madland and Malkie Wall, Center for American Progress, posted on

While union density has fallen in most OECD countries in recent decades, select European countries – including Belgium and Denmark – have managed to maintain relatively high and stable membership during that time. They’ve done this by allowing unions to help administer public unemployment insurance. Government funds are kept separate from union funds, so unions don’t receive a direct monetary gain from this system. However, the so-called Ghent system enables unions to build relationships with workers, provides an incentive for workers to join the union, and facilitates recruitment. It can also improve the delivery of government services, as a there is some evidence that a higher percentage of eligible workers receive unemployment benefits in Ghent countries.

Policymakers could take an analogous approach here in the United States. A recent report from the Center for American Progress shows how involving unions in workforce training, labor law enforcement, and public benefits navigation could boost union membership while also improving program delivery.

Stronger unions and improved government services for workers are sorely needed. Wages have been flat for decades, income inequality is at record high levels, and the government increasingly responds only to the rich and powerful – problems that unions are able to help address.

Even government basics aren’t working well for many workers. Lax enforcement of workplace laws causes widespread wage theft and unsafe workplaces. Training – even where it does exist – does not necessarily guarantee a good job. And government programs that are designed to support workers and the public – such as unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and healthcare and retirement benefits – can be confusing to navigate and are frequently underutilized.

Strong unions can help rebalance the scales by ensuring that workers have a voice in the workplace to raise wages and political clout to ensure that the government better serves the public. But due to decades of attacks by corporations and conservative courts and lawmakers, less than 11 percent of U.S. workers belong to a collective bargaining unit today.

U.S. policymakers have already laid out a number of reforms to remove barriers to unionization and restore power to workers, including significant penalties for breaking the law, enhanced strike rights, and “fair share fees” to distribute the costs of bargaining. These are important reforms, but truly re-building unions will take more than expanded protections, as unions are still struggling even in countries with these types of policies.

That’s where an “American Ghent” system could come in with strong incentives for union membership.

Unions have several unique features – including access to workers, a democratic structure for providing trustworthy advice, and the ability to offer some protection from retaliation – that make them well-positioned to act as intermediaries between workers and the state. Having industry knowledge also provides an edge, since unions can better recognize existing gaps and the most effective strategies for filling them. For example, labor-management partnerships that bring together employers and unions to design and implement workforce training are able to target skills that are valuable to employers and workers. They can also connect trainees with jobs that exist.

Luckily, the United States already has a number of existing models to expand on:

Take for example the Las Vegas Culinary Academy – a well-known labor management program that uses a combination of government and collectively-bargained multi-employer funds to train people entering the hospitality industry. As a registered postsecondary institution, the academy trains several thousand people – most of whom are black and Hispanic – every year. Training is free to union members at participating hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, and the academy works with the industry’s hiring hall to establish a connection between trainees and new job openings.

As another example, Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services (DAS) is currently operating a program where the public sector union trains workers to navigate the state retirement and health benefits system. DAS officials believe the training will encourage employees to choose benefit plans that better match their individual needs and help with retention in the public sector by bringing workers’ attention to the high-quality benefits system.

Additionally, several cities have introduced formal co-enforcement programs that partner with worker organizations and unions to conduct education and outreach about local labor law. And the Los Angeles Unified School District has long partnered with local trade unions to monitor prevailing wage law compliance on district construction projects, which has helped strengthen enforcement.

All three of these programs can boost the quality of government services while also providing a platform for unions to recruit members. They are just a snapshot of what potential programs could look like, and greater experimentation is necessary. Ideally, unions would help deliver a full range of benefits that workers need. For instance, a proposed bill in Washington state legislates a role for worker organizations to provide worker outreach and education, engage in co-enforcement, and help manage a portable benefits fund. One thing is clear, though: policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels should seek more opportunities to involve unions in the delivery of public programs. Instituting Ghent-like measures can lead to greater alignment and benefits for workers, business, and the public.

David Madland is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Malkie Wall is a Research Assistant there.

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