I have been working hard to not comment on the situation in Wisconsin. It is difficult as it's on every channel and every news broadcast. It makes me look at the "Why Unions" question. Do they still hold a valid place in the employment makeup?
To answer this question we must first review why labor unions came into existence in the first place. The obvious answer is to protect their members. Protect them from what? Protect them from the potential over bearing power the organization they work for can have in compensation and employment condition negotiations. It is not hard to see why unions were put in place and why they have continued to exist. All one has to do is look at the recent economic downturn to see how many more workers outside of unions were put out of work for longer periods, for the betterment and continued existence of the organization. Look at the wages paid to a union worker vs non-union. Compare the benefits and associated individual costs of a union worker to non-union. Who wouldn't want to be part of a union?
In some ways we should consider Organization as Organism. It does what is required for its own continued existence over the individual components, people, who directly contribute to its continued life. This is just the way it works. An organization is an abstract entity with its own instinct for survival. Not sure if you have studied it, but survival is a strong instinct. It can cause decisions to be made that are irrational and poorly formed.
"That's all great, John, but what's your actual point? Where is the importance of this to me?"
Well, let us take a look at your possible role int he situation:
As a Worker:
Unions exist because of the "opposing perception" between the Organization and your own individual needs. We all want better for the work we do, the actions we perform that help to bring up our organization to which we have committed our time and energy. If we all felt the Organization was compensating us as fairly as possible we would have little need for the collective bargaining power that unions provide. If you are already getting the best, how could you possibly ask for more? Also, if you understand the situation the organization faces when cutting back its compensation offerings, I'm sure most would agree, keeping your job available and being able to make it to more prosperous times with potentially better compensation offerings doesn't look so bad.
As HR, Staffing, Recruiting:
Sadly, here I have to say, weak and spineless teams in these positions in the organization lead to employee acceptance of unions. HR professionals are trained to be concerned with labor laws. What we are not taught is to be concerned with the people whom those laws protect. Generally we are put in play only when the need to protect the organization from its own actions or employee issues arises. We also need to stand up at the table when appropriate, when the decisions of the organization are not humane and compassionate within reasons of self protection and the protection of what makes a organization exist, its collective human resource. HR professionals in any organization need to strive to break the "Us vs. Them" perception between the organization and employees.
As Management(Executive or Otherwise):
You are charged with making decisions and taking action in the name of the organization. Making sure things will happen that allow the organization to grow and thrive. More often than not, this includes making highly difficult decisions regarding your workforce. Ask yourself this before you make that next difficult decision, have you had your HR team review the first hand impact of your decision? Have you included your HR to not only give you the numbers effected but also how your decision may impact employees directly? You really need to look to your HR Partners to provide you the Human insight to be considered prior to making employee impacting decisions.
Too often management looks at HR as the safety net against employee legal issues or who to talk to about hiring. Not as well trained, well seasoned, business professionals charged with giving the organization a heart. A beating pulse taken at all levels provided to you to make sure the human factors are always considered. If the decisions chosen are ones that always first and foremost consider the human resources providing life to the Organism which is the Organization there is no need for collective bargaining. This removes the power currently provided to the union.
I'm not here saying Unions are right, I'm not saying they are wrong. They do drive up cost, provide a better standard of living for members and remind an organization that people make it whole. Do they still have a place? Until people can feel they can trust the organization to consider them first and foremost, I believe they will continue to exist. Perhaps, someday organizations will heed their HR professionals when taking these employee impacting action providing them with the authority and consideration required to provide the organization the heart it seems to need.