How Unions Can Prosper in the 21st Century

12/19/2012 06:20 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2013

The recent "right to work" legislation in Michigan is the latest challenge to the labor union's relevancy in the 21st century. While some welcome this downfall and others celebrate it, there is little room to debate the historical value of labor unions to drive both economic growth and social prosperity. In the early 20th century and again at the end of the Cold War -- remember the role "solidarity" played in Poland to end Communism -- labor unions have proven to be part of the fabric of democratic capitalism.

But that was then. Today, as social, economic and demographic realities emerge all over the world -- and come to a head in places like Wisconsin and Michigan and Greece -- unions are struggling to survive.

However, it's not yet time to write the obituary for labor unions. They can remain relevant, vibrant components of the 21st century if they can help workers craft longer, more productive careers. This is what workers need, and unions can play a leadership role in giving it to them.

A century ago, it was a fine idea to help laborers secure a concrete retirement age with good benefits. But in the 21st century, as we plan to live into our 80's and 90's, unions need to develop their mission so they can help their members stay valuable to employers throughout their historically long lives. Rather than focusing on ways to help their members retire early, can unions find ways to help their members work longer?

If labor unions can do this, they could recapture their lost value and establish a foothold in the 21st century economy. In fact, if unions can become the leaders in turning an aging workforce into a productive workforce, then they will re-establish themselves as an indispensable ingredient to growth and competitiveness.

What can unions to do promote long, healthy careers?

A key component is education -- ongoing, life-long, never-stop-learning education. This isn't the "adult education" programs that became popular at the end of the 20th-century. This is a kind of education with a fresh approach to the purpose, goals, and time-frame of learning.

Applied to the current situation in Detroit, or even Athens, if labor unions really want to protect and empower their members, then they should find ways to make them the smartest, most up-to-date laborers in the world. For the United Auto Workers Union and others to become an indispensable part of the Motor City's 21st century economic success story, they need to become training grounds that keep workers producing at the highest levels throughout their long working lives.

As Michigan's Governor Richard Snyder has said, this "right to work" legislation is an opportunity for labor unions to re-establish their value proposition. There is no greater value the union could have to individuals, businesses, and society than helping people remain vital as they age.

If unions can achieve this goal, they would become not inimical to but perfectly aligned with the interests of business and government. And, in the process, they would become a valuable social asset. Productive aging is in everyone's best interest, and both pro-union and right-to-work advocates would be wise to recognize as much. Real, valuable and sustainable progress can be made here if the debate can be evolved to address this issue.

Indeed, with the right thought leadership, this is a ground upon which the two divisive sides might unite.

It will be a shame if the upheaval in Michigan subsides back into politics-as-usual. We've seen similar promise fizzle out in Wisconsin, Ohio and across Europe. This is one of those situations in which everyone keeps trying to answer the wrong question. 21st century demographics turn everything about 20th century labor on its head. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in and of itself. But, with the right leadership, and innovative ideas, it can become a victory for both unions and right-to-work advocates.