Living Economics

White-collar unions
White-collared workers are increasingly affiliated with beleaguered blue-collared labor unions to bulk up their collective bargaining position over non-wage issues.

The National Association of Immigration Judges became a local of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers union about eight years ago.

Five years ago, 3200 New York psychologists chose to affiliate with the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation of Teachers union.

Traditionally, labor unions have been representing mostly blue-collar workers whose primary interest is collective bargaining over compensations. But pay and pensions for immigration judges are set by Congress. Psychologists are mostly self-employed and as independent contractors, they are barred by antitrust law to form their labor unions. Why do judges and psychologists need unions? And what do immigration judges and engineers, or psychologists and teachers have in common?

While compensations are the important issue, working conditions are just as important. For instance, the judges' union is negotiating with the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review over implementing new productivity goals, work schedules and grievance procedures. By affiliating with the Engineers' union, the judges hope to have more clout in negotiating for better outcomes.

On the other hand, psychologists hope that union affiliation strengthens their lobbying for greater patient confidentiality and against managed-care cutbacks in state capitals and in Washington.

Although the union affiliations appear to be strange bedfellows, they are nevertheless a marriage of convenience for the beleaguered labor union movement. As the traditional source of union members shrinks due to the decline of manufacturing employment, white-collar workers are the only expanding source of new members and membership dues. White-collared workers in the public sector are particularly a rich source of new members as they face little or no employer resistance in organizing drives.

Offshoring of blue-collar and white-collared jobs due to globalization and information digitalization has severely weakened the bargaining power of most U.S. workers. Without union protection, the compensation and working conditions of those workers whose jobs are not in immediate danger of being offshored might deteriorate more than is necessary because of the domino effect. While the union movement among white-collared workers might strengthen their bargaining power, it might also strengthen the bargaining power of all workers because they bring with them numbers and membership dues. It is doubtful that union protection could reverse the offshoring trend when the same jobs could be done offshore at a fraction of the U.S. wages, but at least the movement of jobs to offshore destinations will be more orderly and less traumatic when the decline of union memberships is less abrupt. After all, the U.S. Congress is still a potent force in market intervention and will always listen to powerful organized lobbying groups such as the labor unions.

  • WSJ. 9/27/2005. "The new union worker."
  • WSJ. 9/27/2005. Why psychologists unionized."
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