While not everyone may agree on what the challenges are for unions in the 21st century, I would say they are a strong anti-union sentiment fostered by politicians and business people, a movement away from workers' rights, and a sluggish economy. My response is focused on these phenomena in the United States, since that is the country with which I have the greatest familiarity. What unions can do about any of these is problematic, since there are prevailing forces beyond the control of unions, but they should not just lie down and die, either!
The strong anti-union wave in this country is a form of scapegoating by politicians and businessmen, who manage to persuade the public that much of what has gone wrong in the country has been the fault of unions. There are a few ways to address this. Unions must devote more of their time and money to lobbying, better public relations, and a careful selection of cases to take to court to expand the rights of unions. The anti-union lobby is a powerful one, which has cut away the ground from under the feet of many unions, particularly public employee unions. After the Citizens United case, we know that entities have the right of free speech, and unions need to exercise this speech as effectively as their opponents do. The rank and file need to step up with dues to make this happen, as well as to use their resources for better public relations generally. They can use their energy in socially responsible ways that will bring them better press. As for cases, they say bad cases make bad law. When there is an opportunity to get court interpretation that is more generous to unions, it should be seized upon with the most compelling set of facts possible, to make some good law for them. Trying to argue that college athletes should have the right to be unionized, for example, seems like a frivolous waste of precious resources.
There seems to be a movement away from workers' rights. Unions gained so many rights for people in the last century, as did a great deal of enlightened legislation, for example, workers' compensation, work safety laws, minimum wage statutes, and wage and hour statutes. I think this has made us complacent, and certainly, businesses have no interest in introducing new rights for employees. This means that unions have a harder time convincing anyone of their necessity. Unions were formed during a time in which workers had brutal work environments, which generally no longer exist. However, there is still a great deal of work to be done by unions. For example, we now have many businesses that schedule workers according to demand, so that workers do not know how many hours they will work in a given week or what days of the week they will work. We have businesses that function almost exclusively on temporary labor. We have businesses such as Uber who argue that everyone who works is a contractor, not an employee at all, thus not entitled to be covered by the laws that protect employees. These kinds of problems are the new frontier for unions, and they must persuade workers of the necessity for protections against the ways that businesses manipulate and take advantage of workers. This, too, is about public relations.
Finally, the economy since 2008 has been a seller's market, meaning that employers have total control. When there are 300 people applying for one job, a company has its pick, and the company also has the means of creating a strong anti-union environment, intimidating employees with threats of firing or of going out of business if a union comes in. When people are desperate and have families to feed, they will put up with this sort of situation. The union, of course, has no control over the economy. But as the unemployment rate drops and the economy recovers, there is likely to be a shortage of skilled labor and thus, more power for employees to exert. That is the point at which unions can make a more compelling case for the kinds of protections that banding together can offer employees. That moment is almost upon us now, with companies complaining of shortages of various kinds of labor, and the union would do well to ascertain which sectors of industries are experiencing these problems, so it can strike while the iron is hot.
Unions serve such an important purpose, and they are by no means obsolete. They just need to decide to throw their resources at the problems, choose their battles carefully, and focus on the industries whose workers are most needed.