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COVID-19 changes more bad news for unions

The Labor Day holiday dates back to the early 20th century and envisioned as a public celebration of "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community.

This year's commemoration may seem strained with social distancing and much uncertainty about the future of jobs and opportunity, but the situation is less dire than feared at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Americans are resilient and are finding ways to cope. We should all take pride in that. It's also possible the disruption will have some positive side effects, like shaking up the status quo regarding labor unions.

It is unlikely work life will revert to the way it was before the COVID-19 crisis. Many workers have learned to clock in from home and found they prefer it. Big companies are rethinking large offices now that they know workers can do things remotely. Service-oriented businesses like restaurants have switched over to delivery as the primary means of reaching customers. City populations will thin if offices go empty, and the ancillary businesses that relied on the white-collar workers — like dry cleaners, delis, and parking lots — will thin out, as well.

That's "creative destruction" happening, and it's a necessary if sometimes painful sort of change. We must cope and adjust. Instead of being clustered together in a workplace, more of us will be independent actors, providing valuable services from home. One of the great banes of workers — commuting — will decline as a concern. Fewer people will need to leave their home, and those who must will find streets less crowded. Parents who once saw their children for only a few hours a day will now be more often present.

What will all this change mean for labor unions, a prominent workforce influencer for more than a century? The shift away from a traditional workplace eliminates one of the main ways organizing was accomplished: employees talking to one another. Workers will be less inclined to see themselves as members of a collective if they don't actually see fellow workers on a daily basis. Individual workers will feel more empowered to make demands of their employers, since they can more easily switch to another job.

The growth in the so-called gig economy, now accelerated, will be a particular problem for unions. Gig workers are typically hired as contractors and, therefore, not legally organizable by unions.

Right now, allowing Americans to get back to work is still the best thing we can do for them, particularly in this altered world we find ourselves, where work as we knew it is changing rapidly.

Sean Higgins is a research fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy organization. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

 

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