Unions in the U S  Research Paper

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HRM as Intermediaries Between Management and Unions

Unions & HRM

HRM as Intermediary between Management and Unions

Centuries ago employees had little or no power when it came to negotiating wages, hours, and work conditions with their employers and often suffered great hardship as a result (Brown and Warren, 2011, p. 97). Eventually employees formed labor unions to take advantage of their collective power, thus forcing employers to improve compensation and work conditions, a practice that continues to play an important role in many economies globally.

The Role of Unions in the United States

The United States has experienced a greater than 50% decline in the prevalence of labor unions since the 1960s (Brown and Warren, 2011, p. 96) and on a global scale is one of the least unionized economies today (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2011). Yet, the U.S. ranks as one of the most productive countries in the world terms of gross domestic product per hour worked (OECD, 2011). Based on this data alone it seems reasonable to assume that organized labor is bad for the economy, but Luxembourg and Norway are one of the most unionized countries in the world and these workers are about 16-19% more productive than American workers. The reason for this discrepancy has been attributed to differences in access to affordable higher education (Leonhardt, 2011b), but regardless of the actual cause(s) it seems safe to conclude that unions per se cannot be blamed for poor productivity.

The increasing irrelevance of unions in the U.S. may be a sign that organized labor no longer has a place in the American economy, since worker productivity appears to be independent of whether or not the workforce is unionized, but David Leonhardt argues that the need for unions may be just as important now as in the past (2011a). For example, U.S. corporations raked in record profits in 2010 (Salazar, 2011) and rose close to 12% between late 2007 and 2010 (Leonhardt, 2011a), yet the unemployment rate skyrocketed during this period and remains persistently high. This suggests the high productivity of American workers today is due in part to fewer workers working harder, which in turn lowers costs associated with a larger workforce. Under these conditions there is little incentive for corporations to hire more workers as long as profits continue to rise.

The status quo, in terms of record profits and high unemployment, is unsustainable. The increasing discontent among non-wealthy Americans concerning corporate malfeasance and unemployment has caught the attention of labor unions (Wallsten, 2011) and may represent the beginning of a movement that will harness its collective power and demand changes. To see a reduction in unemployment rates this may be exactly what's required, which suggests unions still have an important, and possibly critical role to play. Under these conditions it's hard not to imagine the U.S. economy not benefitting in the long run if the strength and prevalence of labor unions increase.

The Role of HRM Today

The 1990s witnessed collective agreements between unions and employers that began to mold human resource management (HRM) practices into what has been called progressive/high-performance HRM (Brown and Warren, 2011, p. 97). Progressive HRM attempts to address employer concerns about the negative effect unions are suspected of having on worker productivity by focusing on performance motivation, skills training, retention, product and/or service quality, and the workforce of poor performers. HRM personnel therefore find themselves positioned at the fulcrum between corporate forces seeking increased productivity and product/service quality, and the need for a living wage, reasonable hours, job security, non-discriminatory practices, health and retirement benefits, and safe working conditions my workers.

Unions have traditionally relied on a seniority system for promotion, salary, and layoff decisions, and the more senior the employee the better paid and more secure their job is (Brown and Warren, 2011, p. 97). To improve worker productivity…

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