Why Unions are Not the Answer to Lack of Diversity in Industries

Unions continue to struggle to stop their ebbing membership, down another .4 percent year-over-year in 2016. The current strategy is embracing modern business challenges and presenting unionization as the solution. The most recent claim is that forming “tech labor unions” in the technology industry is the answer to persistently low diversity numbers. The truth is that unions make it more difficult for employers to retain flexibility in the hiring, retention and development of diverse talent, and it’s important to continue to union-proof your businesses through effective leadership, consistent employee training, and diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives that address challenges like unconscious bias in the human resources (HR) process.

Foot in the Tech Door

Unions have had limited success in organizing contracted tech workers, like shuttle drivers, security guards and cafeteria workers. Now they’re ready to push their agenda forward. During a diversity panel discussion at the recent “Tech Inclusion New York” conference, panel members discussed the reasons tech labor unions could diversify the industry’s workforce. Reasons included an existing diverse union membership; strength in numbers; and an ability to act, rather than just talk about, diversity.

The tech companies have been heavily criticized for their lack of workforce diversity ever since they went public with their diversity numbers. The statistics are embarrassing to the industry, so businesses initiated a host of initiatives to attract a diversity of talent based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preferences and disabilities. After three years of promising to increase diversity percentages, the numbers show a lack of significant progress.

Unions claim they can change the status quo through the power of numbers and a collective voice. Unions cannot solve the diversity challenges in the tech industry, but they can certainly make progress more difficult. Companies that publicly say they want to achieve diversity, but fail to make progress, should first look at their leadership skill sets. Effective change management is crucial to changing an organization’s status quo, not outside union interference that will pit workers against each other and workers against employers.

Don’t Do as I Do, Do as I Say

Union contracts tend to benefit older workers who are in the majority. That’s not an avenue for change. Unions also do all they can to force employers to hire union workers, but the union job applicants may not be the most qualified nor diverse. That’s also not an avenue for diversity change.

Unions fail to tell employers they’re resistant to change themselves and have their own diversity challenges, like diversifying union leadership and attracting minorities. The percent of diverse employed people represented by unions declined from 36.2 percent in 2015 to 34.6 percent in 2016 (includes Blacks or African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics or people with Latino ethnicity).

Unions also claim they can drive change through strength in numbers. A union is an affinity group, a set of people with a common purpose and interests. Business affinity groups are called employee resource groups (ERGs) and give diverse people a way to network and have a collective voice. However, some employers, like the global company Deloitte, are finding affinity groups exclude the very people needing to hear what the diverse people are saying — white males — and millennials do not want to be defined by a demographic based on differences. The real challenge is developing all leaders with the skill sets needed to drive organizational D&I and training all employees on D&I as a core business value.

Push Your Own Agenda

Unions are special interest groups, and their primary purpose is to push an agenda that helps union members. Unions are not the answer to a lack of workforce diversity in any industry. Unionization complicates the HR function by limiting the flexibility of hiring managers. Union-proofing your business is one crucial strategy supporting the achievement of diversity goals. The other important strategies are developing engaging leaders, eliminating unconscious bias in processes and holding leaders accountable for progress.

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