Unions and Management

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Human Resource Management Review 22 (2012) 27–42

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Human Resource Management Review
j o u r n a l h o m e p a g e : w w w. e l s ev i e r. c o m / l o c a t e / h u m r e s

The diffusion of HR practices in unions
Barbara L. Rau
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, United States

a r t i c l e
Keywords: Union administration Union management HR practices

i n f o

a b s t r a c t
Unions, like other service industry and/or nonprofit employers, are uniquely dependent upon the performance of their human resources to ensure organizational success. Consequently, unions have much to gain from adopting a more strategic focus in the management of their vital human talent. While some unions are moving toward greater sophistication in their internal HR practices (Clark and Gray, 2005), as a whole unions have been slow to embrace a strategic outlook on human resources and adopt HR practices that could improve union effectiveness and rejuvenate the union movement. In this paper, I identify and discuss internal organizational characteristics and external environmental factors that may influence the adoption of more sophisticated HR practices by labor unions. It is hoped that the framework that is suggested here can be used to launch research directed at understanding and improving the diffusion of good HR practices among unions that could subsequently improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of unions as institutions. Published by Elsevier Inc.

1. Introduction The dramatic decline in rates of unionization in the U.S. over the past 60 years has been of interest and concern to labor researchers for some time. From a high of 34.5% of the nonagricultural workforce in 1946, union density has declined to 11.9% of employed wage and salary workers in 2010 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). From just 1999 to 2006, the number of labor unions in the U.S. declined from 30,703 to 25,351 (Cornell University ILR School, 2008). Many explanations have been posited: changes in the structure of the U.S. economy, changes in labor law under Taft–Hartley, increased management resistance, decreased need for/interest in unions, and decreased union organizing efforts (e.g., Flanagan, 2006; Freeman & Medoff, 1984). In at least one respect, however, understanding the reasons for the decline is irrelevant to reversing the situation. Regardless of the causes, the bottom line is that unions have failed to adapt to new realities in ways that would allow them to reclaim their membership and thrive as legitimate, accepted, and vital institutions of a democratic society. The decline in unionization has resulted in the loss of union management expertise at time when the challenges unions face are increasingly more complex. Not only are unions are grappling with pressing employment issues like increased workforce diversity, rising costs of health insurance, globalization, and an aging workforce, they do so in an environment with unprecedented opposition by “large, powerful and globally connected corporations opposed to organizing” (Bronfenbrenner & Hickey, 2003: 9.) For unions to be effective institutions, something must be done to invigorate the union movement. For most nonprofit organizations employees are often “the single most important asset” (Akingbola, 2006: 1708) because they rely heavily on human capital to deliver services necessary to meet its mission, vision, and organizational objectives. According to Weil (1997), in unions the proportion of total expenses that go toward hiring and retention of talent ranges anywhere from 30 to 70% of total expenses. For most unions, well over half of expenses are people-related. Thus, any attempt to understand why unions have not successfully responded to the challenges put before them must consider human resources (HR) practices. HR practices determine whether unions have the talent, the knowledge, the performance expectations, and the operational practices...
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