Richard W. Hurd and John Bunge
Condensed version of chapter in Emerging Labor Market Institutions for the Twenty-First Century, edited by R. Freeman, J. Hersch, and L. Mishel, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2005.
Changes in control structures and corporate hierarchies are combining with rapid advances in information technology to create intense pressure in labor markets for many professional and technical occupations. Employers face increased incentives to monitor job content while workers experience heightened anxiety about potential obsolescence. These influences are reinforced by developments in the political economy as greater reliance is placed on unrestrained market forces. In a recent article aptly titled “How the Economy Came to Resemble the Model,” Alan Blinder argues that labor is now viewed as “just a commodity” as evidenced in part by the rapid growth of contingent employment and by reduced job security for white collar workers (Blinder, 2000). In this evolving context, there is evidence that in a broad array of professional and technical occupations, workers are losing their revered control over job content along with the ability to exercise discretion.
In the medical field the growth of health maintenance organizations, group practice and managed care has changed the role of medical doctors, leading some social scientists to describe the “deprofessionalization of … medicine” (Anderson 1992), and others to call for a new perspective the “physician as worker” (Hoff 2001). Similarly pharmacists have transitioned from self employment to organizational employment and in the process have lost autonomy (McHugh and Bodah, 2002). Dramatic change in the structure of work is not limited to healthcare. A trend towards corporate acquisition of CPA firms is reducing the independence and discretion associated with accounting (Shafer, et. al, 2002), while in academia the share of teaching handled by adjuncts and part-time faculty is growing (Rhoades, 1998: 131-138). There are developments with similar implications for occupations as diverse as airline pilots whose latitude on the job is restricted by technology, and symphony musicians whose work is routinized by management rules and close supervision (Hackman, 1998).
And yet, employment continues to grow rapidly in relevant occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for professional specialties will increase by 27 percent from 1998 to 2008, while those for technicians will expand by 22 percent; these are the fastest anticipated growth rates among the major occupational groups (U.S. Department of Labor, 2000: 2-5).
Established institutions that serve the interests of white collar workers find themselves at a critical juncture. On the one hand they can foresee the potential to augment membership and influence. On the other hand, they confront the reality of reconfigured labor markets. Growth (and indeed survival) is contingent upon being able to adapt to the changing needs and interests of professional and technical workers. The combination of technological advances and alterations in the functioning of white collar markets suggests strategic reconceptualization and institutional transformation. This chapter explores the attitudes of professional and technical workers towards their jobs and labor market organizations in search of information relevant to institutional transformation.
Although primary attention is devoted to unions of white collar workers, professional associations play an essential role in these markets and serve as an apt source of institutional comparison. While their membership bases often overlap, there are substantial differences in the emphasis and practices of these two types of organizations. Unions focus on relations with the employer, while professional associations cater to individual needs and simultaneously foster collegial relationships (within the profession and with the employer). Professionals are drawn to associations because of information, professional development and networking. They are often drawn to unions because of trouble on the job. As Tina Hovekamp aptly contrasts in an article about librarians, professional associations bring people together outside of work around common knowledge and expertise, while unions bring people together within the workplace based on distinctions in power (Hovekamp, 1997, 242). The character and functions of professional associations are described in greater detail later in this chapter to help facilitate interpretation of statistical results.
Reflections on the Decline of Unions in the Private Sector
Private sector union density in the U.S. has consistently been higher among blue collar workers, especially in manufacturing, construction, transportation and communication, and lower among white collar workers, particularly in the service industries. As the economy has evolved with white collar employment and the service sector growing disproportionately, unions have struggled to adapt. Nonetheless, scholarly analyses of union decline typically discount standard explanations tied to changing employment patterns. A review article by Chaison and Rose (1991) concludes that no more than one-quarter of the loss in union density in the U.S. can be accounted for by structural variables.
Freeman (1988) offers a strong critique of structural explanations, explicitly rejecting the increase in white collar employment as a key influence. Of particular relevance here, he objects to the standard assumption in that line of research that union density in a sector remains fixed over time. As evidence of the flawed nature of this assumption he refers to union expansion among public employees in the 1970s that featured unionization of white collar professionals. Freeman then explores government industrial relations policies, employer resistance, and union strategy as more important influences. Since the early 1990s the research on union decline and potential resurgence has concentrated on these three factors, with some attention as well to globalization, deregulation, and public opinion.
In a recent paper, Farber and Western (2001) revisit the structural approach and offer a model that addresses the weakness in the earlier research by incorporating other factors. The implications of their analysis are compelling and pessimistic regarding the future of union density in the private sector. Rather than looking at trends in employment by industry or occupation, Farber and Western divide the private sector into two sub-sectors – the union sector and the non-union sector. They argue that because of the combined influences of economic change, public policy and employer anti-unionism, there is a natural tendency for the share of employment in the union sector to fall.
A key observation based on data for 1973-1998 is that most new jobs are created in the non-union sector. Except for expansion of employment in unionized facilities, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certification process assures that virtually all new jobs are non-union and must be organized in order to move into the union sector. This is seldom a simple process even when the employer owns unionized facilities elsewhere, given the widely accepted tenet that “deep seated opposition to unions [is] embedded in the ideology of American management and the culture of many American firms” (Kochan, Katz, and McKersie, 1994:56). The combined effects of globalization, deregulation and the growth of the service sector merely serve to accelerate the pace of relative decline in the union sector.
If the union sector naturally shrinks, then union density can remain stable or increase only if union organizing in the non-union sector is successful and is quantitatively sufficient to counterbalance or exceed the relative loss of union jobs. Because of the myriad of challenges that make union organizing difficult, private sector density has fallen steadily for almost fifty years. As Hirsch notes, the drop in density is pervasive and has affected all industries for 1983-94 (Hirsch, 1996:19), a trend that has continued through 2003. Thus, not only have unions failed to penetrate industries and occupations beyond their base, they also have been unable to retain their share in those parts of the private sector where they are established.
In order to assess the potential for union growth, Farber and Western attempt to estimate the magnitude of union organizing activity that would be required to attain selected steady state levels of density. Their forecasts are built upon the explicit and reasonable assumptions of fixed government labor relations policy, a union objective of wealth redistribution from employer to worker, and continuing employer anti-unionism. A corollary implicit assumption is that labor market institutions (including unions) remain unchanged. Their estimates of the magnitude of increased expenditures on organizing required to reverse the downward trend in density are staggering. In order to halt decline, unions would approximately need to quadruple the share of resources devoted to organizing. In order to achieve a steady state of 12.25 percent (the current density is 9 percent), unions would have to devote resources to organizing that exceed 100 percent of their current total budgets (Farber and Western, 2001:480).
Although Farber and Western must rely on incomplete information (particularly regarding expenditures on organizing) to make specific forecasts, the logic of their argument is convincing and in essence their calculations are consistent with an emerging consensus among industrial relations academics. Is the labor movement doomed to obscurity in the private sector, or are there realistic options that could halt or even reverse decline? Unions have limited ability to influence environmental factors such as government industrial relations policy and employer anti-unionism. But they do control their own resources, and are in a position to reconfigure priorities and initiate internal institutional change.
Since the election of John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, virtually all major unions have embraced organizing as a top priority (at least rhetorically). The federation’s “change to organizing” effort, though, has emphasized almost exclusively the objective of increasing the resources devoted to the task. After eight years and a major reallocation of funds in many prominent unions, there is little if any progress. Private sector union density continues to slide. Farber and Western’s analysis helps explain why. With a naturally shrinking base, it becomes increasingly difficult to marshal the resources necessary to reverse momentum.
Perhaps the most important weakness in the “change to organizing” is that a resource shift,ceteris paribus, seeks to extend unionism as it exists. This paper accepts, consistent with Farber and Western, that it is unrealistic to presume that a resource shift alone will be sufficient to halt the decline in union density. Unions need to go beyond resources and explore innovations that in effect will increase the demand for their services. As David Brody argued a decade ago, the labor movement cannot assume that workers will accept unions in their current form, nor can labor define the aspirations of its potential members. The rapid growth of the CIO in the late 1930s was possible because of its capacity to become “the institutional embodiment of the vital job interests of the mass production workers” (Brody, 1991: 308), in this case by offering an industrial union alternative to the AFL. Similarly, the expansion of membership in the public sector during the 1960s and 1970s was facilitated by the ascension of unions willing to adopt an approach more in tune with the experiences of government employees, in part by basing bargaining power on political influence rather than relying on economic weapons like the strike. Any resurgence of labor early in the twenty first century is likely to depend on the ability of existing or emerging unions to identify and respond to the job related needs of substantial concentrations of workers who have unmet “aspirations for industrial justice” (Brody, 1991: 308).
The structural explanations of union decline that were dismissed as insufficient in the late 1980s actually encompassed as a negative a potential route to union survival. To reinterpret the conclusions of that line of research in a more productive light, even if union density is roughly constant in those industries and occupations with relatively high levels of unionization (an unlikely scenario standing alone), long term stability and growth depend on the ability of unions to appeal to workers in industries and occupations where employment is expanding but union density is low. And as the structural analysis points out, private sector markets for white collar workers are crucial because of steady disproportionate employment growth and limited penetration of unions. The changing conditions of professional and technical workers, particularly the loss of control over job content and reduced job security, present an opportunity for unions if they can adapt. Furthermore, the success of public sector unions among professional workers demonstrates that with the appropriate institutional characteristics there is realistic potential to organize similar workers in the private sector. (1)
The contrast in unionization between the private and public sectors is dramatic for professional workers. As Table 1 shows, private sector density is substantially lower for professionals than for other workers while public sector density is higher. The gap in density is greater than for any other major occupational group. In relative terms, public sector density is nearly seven times private sector density for professional workers, almost twice the ratio for all other workers. This contrast suggests that there is substantial growth potential among professional workers if unions are able to respond to their concerns.
Professional Workers Representation Gap
All other non-managerial workers
Source: Unpublished data from the Current Population Survey, provided by David Macpherson. For extensive union information based on the CPS, see Hirsch and Macpherson (2001).
Success among professional workers would be an important accomplishment in its own right because this is now the largest occupational group. If a foothold can be established among professionals, unions will be in a position to use this as a base to spread into technical and clerical occupations; both of these latter occupational groups share the characteristic of relatively low private sector unionization. In 2000, there were only 8.8 million union members in the entire private sector; that year there were 11.5 million non-union professional workers. Add the technical and clerical occupations and there were 28.4 million non-union white collar workers in the private sector. The potential importance of these workers to the future of the labor movement is self evident.
If labor law and employer anti-unionism are fixed, then any appeal by unions to white collar workers is unlikely to succeed unless unions alter their character and institutional role to match the desires of potential members. The research reported here examines the institutional characteristics preferred by professional and technical workers. It does not offer a blueprint for union renewal, but does suggest that there is much to be learned by comparing unions with professional associations, which are viewed by many white collar workers as a more attractive institutional alternative.
[Detailed survey description and statistical analysis omitted from condensed version.]
The Enterprise of Professional Associations (2)
Professions achieve their standing not solely because of inherent qualities of the work, but also as a product of intentional collective effort among practitioners to elevate the social and labor market status of the occupation. Professional associations are essential to the process of establishing, maintaining and enhancing professional identity (Ritzer and Walczak, 1986). In the early stages of professionalization a new association typically adopts a strong code of ethics that spells out the expectations of professional behavior and emphasizes service to the public. Based in part on its code of ethics, the association strives to promote a dignified public image for the profession. Simultaneously it seeks to erect barriers to entry by establishing certification standards (either generally for the profession or for areas of specialty practice), typically through political action designed to influence state licensure requirements. Ultimately most associations address scope of practice, attempting to delineate the expertise and competence of their members from those of related occupations.
Initial entry into a profession is tied at least informally to holding a relevant college degree; this expectation is often a prerequisite for full membership in the relevant association. In addition, successful performance on a licensing exam may be required in order to qualify for the legal right to practice. In some occupations, states establish additional formal requirements that must be met in order to retain licensure. Although national standards for a profession are not unusual, licensing and certification requirements normally are the province of state governments and there may be substantial variation. (3) Some associations participate in certification directly, and all maintain working relationships with agencies established to confer certification or licenses to those in practice. In this regard, professional associations monitor relevant legislation at the federal and state levels, and promote regulations that protect their members right to practice and that uphold quality standards. In those professions where state regulations include continuing education expectations, associations offer programs to help meet those requirements.
Professional association members are attracted to events and publications that enhance their own knowledge and earning power by offering access to certification and state of the art information. In those professions and states where licensing and certification are optional, the practitioners’ desire for information is often satisfied by technical publications and annual conferences. In those jurisdictions with licensing exams and particularly where there are on-going certification requirements, professional development takes on an elevated level of importance. The extent and type of continuing education offered by professional associations are largely determined by these intertwined factors of member interest, requirements for entry into practice, and formal procedures for re-licensure and re-certification.
In addition to professional development activities, most associations offer consumer services such as credit cards, home mortgages, financial advice, and travel bookings and discounts. These services are provided by vendors, and apparently are of only secondary interest to most members. However, associations whose members are in private practice or healthcare report that malpractice liability insurance is a very popular benefit.
In the context of the changing nature of professional work described early in the paper, many associations are in the process of expanding the labor market services they provide, particularly those related to job search; employment listings in association newspapers and on web sites, salary profiles of members in specific geographic areas and sub specialties, and career counseling services are all common. Some engineering associations are in the process of setting up a portable pension plan in response to increased turnover and labor market mobility. Nonetheless, associations are reluctant to interfere in the workplace directly or in any way encroach upon employer authority. In most associations employers are accepted as members and may even encourage their employees to join. At all levels, associations maintain cordial relations and often close collaboration with key employers, especially regarding professional development programs.
With growing concern among professional workers about their labor market status and the changing nature of work, associations are experiencing some pressure to be more proactive. A few publish professional employment guidelines that amount to standards of employer conduct. Others have attempted to open a dialogue with employers. But these efforts are merely suggestive and have no enforcement mechanism. Even at this, they create problems that most associations would rather avoid. As one association executive explains, “We have to be careful not to get our members crosswise with our companies.”
Most professional associations are content to focus on what they do best and serve the professional interests of their individual members. They are reluctant to interfere in the workplace, and for the most part eschew union like activity. A few associations with large numbers of members who are represented by unions in the public sector actually endorse union representation, although they do not provide collective bargaining services themselves. And with the American Medical Association’s new attention to collective bargaining options, some associations in health care are reconsidering historic opposition to unions.
By in large, though, unions and professional associations continue to operate in different realms. The research on professional associations summarized here confirms their importance in promoting specific professional and technical occupations. It also points to a clear link between professional development activity and the labor market; indeed, in many occupations continuing education is necessary to maintain status as a licensed practitioner. By all indications, the pressure on these associations to address labor market deficiencies and to defend professional integrity and authority is increasing. This phenomenon deserves monitoring and further in depth analytical attention.
The Potential for Institutional Convergence
In the broad context of their decline in the private sector, unions must address a number of specific challenges if they are to retain their role as influential economic institutions. Perhaps the most important is to determine how to extend membership and influence in labor markets for professional and technical workers. It is unlikely that demand for union representation among these workers will increase without some affirmative action on the part of labor organizations to reconfigure themselves, either by offering a substantially altered set of services or by adopting a markedly different strategic approach. Simply appealing to latent demand for traditional union representation is extraordinarily unlikely to produce a groundswell of interest.
The statistical analysis presented here facilitates inference regarding the type of labor market institution preferred by professional and technical workers. To recap the descriptive overview of survey responses, these workers are satisfied with their jobs, display long term attachment to the occupation, and are interested in protecting individual autonomy at work. At the same time they want to enhance their role in decision making, preferably through dialogue with management in a cooperative framework rather than through confrontation.
This combination of attitudes does not neatly match existing institutions. Unions offer voice at work, but promote collective rather than individual influence and often rely on adversarial tactics. Professional associations offer opportunities to enhance individual expertise and promote the profession, often in collaboration with employers, but do not address workplace concerns or promote influence on the job. Although employee involvement programs seem to fit some of these attitudes, they do not promote occupational concerns and (among those surveyed) are not viewed as a preferred institutional form.
The detailed comparison between those who align with unions and those drawn to professional associations helps guide the analysis. The classification trees and stepwise logistic regressions tell a story on behalf of the professional and technical workers. Union advocates want to address working conditions, wages and benefits, workloads and job security. They hold relatively negative views towards management, are concerned about fair treatment, and will participate in protests to voice their opinions. Supporters of professional associations, on the other hand, place priority on exercising professional judgment at work and want to protect individual freedom. They are attracted to organizations that provide relevant information and professional development opportunities. At the same time they do have workplace concerns, but prefer to address them by meeting with management in a cooperative spirit.
The characteristics of professional associations described in the preceding section are largely consistent with the factors associated with preference for professional association that emerge from the statistical analysis. There are a few factors, however, that go beyond the traditional sphere of associations. Especially important is a desire to address workplace concerns directly by meeting with management to discuss policies. Though the absolute difference is small, it is particularly notable that advocates of professional associations are significantly more interested in meeting with management than are union supporters. Unions do provide mechanisms to address workplace concerns with management, professional associations do not. This indicates a potential for unions to appeal to these workers by offering them voice, and simultaneously raises questions about professional associations’ resistance to assuming such a role. The message is reinforced by the evidence in one of the statistical models that workers who prefer professional associations are more likely to sign petitions to address workplace concerns. Although a less assertive stance than the support for protests from union adherents, this willingness to petition the employer again would not fit the culture of most professional associations.
Given the active promotion by associations of government intervention in the context of licensing and certification requirements, it is also notable that union advocates are significantly more likely to endorse appeals to government agencies as a way to address workplace concerns. The model developed by Weil (2005) facilitates exploration of this apparent contradiction. Weil describes how labor market institutions can affect workplace regulation, distinguishing between actions to influence regulations and those that affect enforcement. He concentrates on the latter in his model.
The statistical results linking union supporters with appeals to government agencies are consistent with Weil’s formulation, which argues that agents such as unions can help resolve the public goods problem inherent in workplace regulation. The fact that it is union supporters that embrace this type of activity is consistent with the overall profile of these workers based on the survey. They are relatively more concerned about terms and conditions of employment, more negative towards management, and more vigilant about fair treatment. These all match their concern for protecting rights in the workplace, which can be addressed by unionization, by appeals to appropriate government agencies, or by both.
Based on survey responses, those who prefer professional associations are less likely to address workplace issues by appealing to government agencies. This is not inconsistent with the political role of professional associations, since their focus is on actions to influence regulations regarding access to the labor market rather than on enforcing rights in the workplace. To return to Weil’s model, by concentrating on enforcement he omits the potential role embraced by associations. Professional and technical workers, though less concerned with fair treatment and workplace rights, may nonetheless be quite supportive of actions that enhance their labor market position. This is clearly consistent with interest in professional development since it offers the potential to increase productivity and market value.
The future of unions, and indeed of professional associations, may lie in the nexus between these two organizational forms. Unions are capable of asserting collective voice in the workplace to exercise rights and promote enforcement of regulations. However, they can play this role only if they gain majority status, a prerequisite under U.S. labor law for establishing the union as bargaining agent. Achieving majority status among professional and technical workers may well depend on the union’s ability to attract those who want a voice at work, but whose preferences are otherwise more closely aligned with the package of services offered by professional associations. This implies more attention to professional/occupational issues both on the job and in the broader labor market, initiatives to provide access to professional development opportunities, and perhaps a modified demeanor vis-à-vis employers. Professional associations are likely to face pressure simultaneously to move towards unions, especially if professional and technical workers continue to express concern about limitations on their ability to exercise professional judgment.
Professional and technical workers are interested in career development and education, but they are also concerned about what happens on the job. They want information about their profession, but also about their employer and their workplace. They are attracted to organizations that serve as advocates, but they also seek a forum to speak out themselves and the ability to control the content of their work. There is a natural tension between the growth in professional and technical employment and the deprofessionalization of the work. In the context of this tension there are incentives for unions and professional associations to find common ground. As labor markets induce convergence they create the potential for the emergence of institutions capable of addressing the multi-faceted needs of the expanding professional and technical workforce.
[References available from authors on request.]
(1) The experience of public school teachers is particularly relevant. The evidence suggests that lack of control in the workplace created incentives for a militant response via unionization (Bacharach, et. al., 1990). And yet teacher unions struggled to find a comfortable identity that combined activism with concern for professionalism (Murphy, 1990: 46-60).
(2) Unless otherwise referenced, this section is based on documents gathered directly from selected professional associations and from interviews with key national staff members of these organizations. A broad range of associations were selected for study, including several from health care, engineering and education plus an assortment of others including accountants, architects, social workers, librarians, and golf professionals. A special effort was made to include several associations of technical workers with modest educational requirements. A complete list of associations and interviews is available from the authors. Summary data has been obtained from the American Society of Association Executives confirming that the information gathered on these associations fits the pattern for comparable organizations (American Society of Association Executives, 1996).
(3) For an overview of key issues related to occupational licensing, see Kleiner (2000).