Collective Bargaining and Private Sector Professionals

By Levitan, Sar A.; Gallo, Frank | Monthly Labor Review, September 1989 | Go to article overview

Collective Bargaining and Private Sector Professionals


Levitan, Sar A., Gallo, Frank, Monthly Labor Review


Collective bargaining and private sector professionals

Researchers review the history and current status of unionism and assess the prospects for collective bargaining among private sector professionals

The fact that unionization rates are now higher among professionals than nonprofessionals--26.8 percent versus 17.8 percent in 1988(1)--has led to predictions that professionals are ripe targets for unionization. However, the increase in collective bargaining by professionals is almost entirely caused by the rise in government organization. More than 1 of 3 professionals is employed by the government and 4 of 5 professionals represented in collective bargaining work in the public sector. But the influence of government unionization among professionals is waning because public sector unionization rates have declined in recent years, and the government work force is growing much more slowly than employment in private industry.

Only 1 in 10 private sector professionals bargains collectively, a proportion which has remained basically unchanged in more than two decades and is unlikely to change significantly in the foreseeable future. Associations representing physicians, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and other professionals historically have perceived little conflict of interest between management and labor, often because their members are in both camps. Hence, major private sector professional associations have shown little interest in collective bargaining.

Private sector professional associations include in their memberships individuals in the top income brackets, with little need for collective bargaining. Also, job security is taken for granted by most professionals as their unemployment rates in the 1980's have been only a third as high as those of the overall work force. Although professional associations are often concerned with educational and licensing standards, ethical codes, and advancing the state of knowledge in their professions, these activities also serve the interests of their members. For example, restricting access to a profession reduces the supply of eligible personnel, benefiting those who obtain the coveted credentials.

Overview

The labor relations policies of a professional association depend partly upon the extent that the organization has gained control over the profession. Physicians' and attorneys' associations have been extremely successful in furthering their members' interests by controlling admittance to the profession and through recommended fee schedules. Although the American Nurses' Association is the only major private sector association which bargains collectively, it has been unable to raise educational requirements for nurses. Other private sector professional associations have concentrated on the subject matter of the profession rather than the interests of the professionals. The distinction between these types of professional associations is rooted in the history of the respective professions. Physicians and lawyers are members of professions with longstanding power to regulate professional practices, even those affecting members employed in bureaucracies such as hospitals, the court system, and large government agencies. In contrast, the engineering and scientific professions were largely created by the large industrial and government bureaucracies which employed them.

Major private sector professional occupations and their median weekly earnings in 1987 are shown in the following tabulation:

                         Number     Median
                           (in       weekly
                       thousands)  earnings
  Total professionals    14,426      $518
Engineers               1,731         720
Registered nurses       1,588         482

Math and computer

  scientists              685         624
Natural scientists        388         615
Lawyers                   672       2,173(*)
Physicians                514       2,298(**)

(*) Partners, 1986 (**) Nonfederal physicians, 1986 From 1983 to 1987, employment for engineers, natural scientists, and attorneys grew at a slightly slower pace than did overall national employment, and the number of physicians may have reached a temporary plateau. …

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