American Ghent

Designing Programs to Strengthen Unions and Improve Government Services

Expanding on existing Ghent-like programs in the United States would strengthen unions and improve government services.

In this article
 (A worker operates machinery at a factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, July 2017.)
A worker operates machinery at a factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, July 2017. (Getty/Adam Glanzman)

Introduction and summary

The Ghent system—an arrangement whereby trade unions help deliver government-supported unemployment insurance—exists in its truest form only in a handful of countries, including Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark. However, the United States has a number of Ghent-like policies where unions deliver or help people access governmental benefits—including workforce training, retirement benefits, and enforcement of workplace laws. Expanding upon these models would increase union membership and improve the quality of public programs in the United States.

The United States has a different history than that which created the unemployment insurance system in Sweden and other Ghent countries. However, unions in America do assist workers in analogous ways. For example, they have partnered with state and local governments to improve training for health care workers in Washington state and city employees in Toledo, Ohio. Unions and worker organizations have also engaged in co-enforcement with municipalities in San Francisco and Los Angeles to boost compliance with state and local labor laws. And in several cases, they have helped workers navigate retirement and health benefit plans. These models have proven successful at improving the quality of government services and at providing an opportunity for union recruitment. They could be significantly expanded to build a robust Ghent-like system in America.

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Boosting union membership and delivering better public services are critical planks of any progressive agenda. Unions play an essential role in ensuring that working people have a fair place in the U.S. economy and a voice in its democracy.1 But, after decades of conservative attack, union density has shrunk to its lowest level in more than 50 years.2

Similarly, for decades, the U.S. government has been so weakened by free market ideologues that it now struggles to perform many of its vital tasks, from basic enforcement of the law to providing support and opportunity for workers. For example, estimates suggest that roughly a quarter of low-wage workers are paid less than the legal minimum wage.3 Moreover, less than 30 percent of unemployed workers end up receiving unemployment insurance,4 and a significant amount of workforce training does little to help workers.5

Involving unions more heavily in the delivery of certain government programs could help raise standards for workers by addressing both declining union membership and low quality or underutilized public services. For unions, such a system would help with recruitment and retention of members because it would ensure visibility, provide access to workers, create incentives for workers to join, and pave the way for greater recognition of the important work that unions do to support a fair economy.6 Research shows that the Ghent system boosts unionization rates by about 20 percentage points compared with non-Ghent countries.7

But implementing the Ghent system alone will not do enough to strengthen U.S. unions; many other policy changes are also required, including basic rights for all workers, stronger penalties for employer violations of the law, and elimination of “right-to-work” laws. These steps are called for in legislation such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the Workplace Democracy Act, and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, all of which would represent a critical step forward.8 Still, the incentives for membership that the Ghent system provides are important. Indeed, countries with the Ghent system are among the few in the world with high, stable union density.9

Union involvement can also improve the quality of public programs. Unions have the unique ability to advocate for workers, communicate complicated economic information, provide trustworthy advice, and afford employees some protection from employers. Unions have a mission and democratic structure to help workers, as well as an incentive to deliver benefits so that they can recruit additional members. These attributes can be vital in making many government programs work properly. Unions, working in partnership with businesses and government, can help tailor training to better meet workforce needs and carve out pathways to advancement in a way that business or the government rarely do on their own.10 Unions also have unique access to workers and their trust as well the ability to protect them from retaliation. These features can improve enforcement of workplace laws and help workers navigate important public programs such as retirement plans, health insurance, and even unemployment insurance.11

Creating a robust Ghent-like system in the United States where unions help people access benefits from a range of governmental programs—such as workforce training, enforcement of workplace laws, health and retirement benefits, and others—would be a significant change from current policy, which suppresses union membership and too often poorly funds government programs. Future policy needs to affirmatively encourage union membership and adequately support government programs as well as the union’s role in them. There is a strong need to boost union density and increase the quality of several governmental programs, and there are also several successful models on which to build.

The rest of this report provides more details on what the Ghent system is; how it improves the quality of public programs and strengthens unions; and how its principles are working well in a few areas in the United States and could be expanded.

The European Ghent system and how it helps unions and the public

The Ghent system—named for the city in Belgium where it originated—relies on labor unions to administer unemployment benefits. Most countries, including the United States, have a system of unemployment insurance administered by government, but for a variety of historical reasons, unions have been heavily involved in administering the unemployment systems of several other countries. Today, variations of the Ghent system exist in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Belgium. While each country’s system works slightly differently, the underlying logic is the same: The Ghent system provides worker organizations with a formalized role in delivering unemployment insurance that is subsidized by the government. In some versions of the Ghent system, workers are required to join the union to access the benefits, but in other versions, unions use the insurance sign-up process and the relationships built through this process to recruit and retain members.

In Belgium, the government is responsible for funding the unemployment insurance system, and people can either choose to go through the government or a union to access the benefits. The union receives government funds to help administer the program; however, it has to keep that money separate from other union finances.12 Workers do not have to be union members in order to receive the benefits, but many still choose to go through the unions because they find it easier and the service better. Unions make it easier to navigate bureaucracy by providing help with paperwork and ensuring that workers receive their payments and enroll in training.13 On top of supplying a needed public benefit, the system also gives unions a chance to interact with workers outside the workplace.14 In short, the Ghent system creates a framework that incentivizes and encourages union membership.

By giving labor organizations a formalized role in the unemployment insurance system, the Ghent system has ensured relatively high union membership in countries using the system even though they are effectively right-to-work states, as workers cannot be required to pay for costs of collective bargaining.15 Indeed, union density in Sweden and Finland was 67 percent and 65 percent, respectively, in recent years.16 Furthermore, the Ghent system tends to lead to reasonably stable membership rates that are less likely to decline during economic or industry downturns, as they are not bound to a single job or firm.17 In Iceland, union density has increased, from 66 percent in 1980 to roughly 80 percent in 2013. Belgium’s union membership rate has hovered around 55 percent for nearly four decades.18 Estimates suggest that the Ghent system boosts union density by almost 20 percentage points and explains much of the historic differences in density between countries such as Sweden and Belgium, which have the Ghent system, and their neighbors Norway and the Netherlands, which do not and have lower membership rates.19 Unfortunately, Sweden and Finland have recently taken steps to make union-provided unemployment insurance more expensive and thus less attractive; as a result, both countries have seen some decline in union membership.20

The benefits of the Ghent system can extend to the public as well as unions. There is some research to suggest that, despite the voluntary nature of the Ghent system—as opposed to the universal nature of most countries’ unemployment insurance systems—takeup rates in Ghent countries are actually higher than in other European countries or the United States. For instance, one study found that in both Denmark and Sweden, 85 percent of unemployed people received unemployment insurance in 2005, compared with only 47 percent and 20 percent of unemployed people in Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively.21 What’s more, research notes that the Ghent system can help achieve much higher coverage in an efficient and cost-effective manner.22 Other research suggests that the key role that unions play in the Ghent system helps make it work well.23

Europe’s experience with the Ghent system shows that involving unions in the provision of benefits can empower unions by significantly increasing their density while also raising takeup rates and quality for the public.

Why a Ghent-like system is needed in the United States

Unions play an essential role in ensuring that working people can adequately participate in an economy that is fair and in the nation’s democracy. They have the power to raise wages for all workers, especially low- and middle-income workers. Analysis shows that, on average, union workers earn roughly 12 percent more than their nonunionized counterparts, with the premium rising for noncollege graduates.24 Collective bargaining can also help close racial and gender wage gaps.25 In addition, research shows that unions increase the likelihood of children moving up the economic ladder later in life; areas with higher union membership have higher intergenerational mobility, and children who grow up in union households have higher incomes as adults. In fact, a community’s union membership level is as strong a predictor of low-income children’s adult earnings as high school dropout rates.26 Finally, unions ensure that democracy works in the interests of ordinary people by acting as a check on corporate interest groups and the wealthy.27 Political scientist Martin Gilens finds that unions are one of the few advocacy groups that consistently lobby for policies supported by low- and middle-income Americans.28 Union-led mobilization efforts also increase voter turnout, especially among Latino and Asian American voters and the working class.29

In recent years, however, attacks by conservative lawmakers and the courts have undermined worker organizations and led to a sharp decline in union membership.30 Whereas almost 25 percent of U.S. workers were part of a union in 1973, union density today has fallen to less than 11 percent.31 And as unions have been weakened, the middle class has suffered. Indeed, researchers estimate that declining union density accounts for one-fifth to one-third of the increase in U.S. wage inequality among women and men, respectively.32

Meanwhile, the government is failing to provide workers with the job training, workplace protections, and public benefits they need. The United States’ current workforce training system is uneven and outside of joint labor-management partnerships; it is too often of low quality and fails to lead to good jobs.33 For instance, studies find that while certificate and subbaccalaureate programs generally yield some increase in earnings, returns vary significantly based on a student’s field of study, race, and gender.34 Moreover, a lot of training is firm specific and leads to skills that are not transferable to other employers.35 In addition, the United States spends less money on training than its competitors; it ranks at the bottom among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries when it comes to spending on training.36 In other words, there is a large gap between the training that is needed and the training that is provided.

Involving worker organizations more robustly in helping run the workforce training system could significantly improve training.37 Unions already play a role in workforce training. They directly negotiate with employers to create labor-management training funds, and they participate in government-funded training in several roles, as both members of workforce boards and recipients of funding. But employers dominate the public system.38 Rebalancing the workforce system to emphasize quality and ensure that unions and employers have equal power—as well as promoting joint labor-management programs—would help ensure that training leads to good jobs.

Research shows that when unions get involved, workers receive more training, and this training leads to better results, including jobs with higher pay.39 Furthermore, workers in labor-management programs are more likely to complete their training, and they drop out at slower rates during economic downturns.40 Completion rates in jointly run construction apprenticeship programs in Ohio and Kentucky, for instance, are 21 percent and 35 percent higher, respectively, than in nonunion programs in those states.41 Union-sponsored training programs in the building trades also have higher enrollment rates and participation among women and people of color than trainings that are not sponsored by unions.42

While training can lead to good jobs with high standards, the standards of those jobs as well as all others must be enforced. Indeed, evidence suggests that wage theft—employers paying workers less than they are legally entitled to—and violations of workplace standards are pervasive. A report by the Economic Policy Institute, for example, estimated that low-wage workers in the United States lost more than $50 billion to wage theft in 2016.43 Unfortunately, workplace violations could become even worse. Wage theft was a significant problem during the Obama administration, even though the U.S. Department of Labor aggressively enforced wage and hour laws and took some steps to make it more difficult to misclassify workers as independent contractors.44 But there are indications that the Trump administration is pulling back from some wage enforcement.45 Additionally, enforcement activity under the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is meant to help ensure that employers provide safe workplaces, has declined under the Trump administration. At the same time, however, inspections related to workplace fatalities or catastrophes rose in fiscal year 2018, suggesting that serious injuries have increased.46

The Labor Department, moreover, can only enforce federal labor laws. But many states and cities have wage laws, paid sick days, family leave, and fair scheduling requirements that go beyond the federal minimum requirements.47 That leaves enforcement responsibility to the state and local levels of government. But even well-resourced state and local enforcement agencies cannot do their job alone. Surveys estimate that there are less than 1,000 state-level investigators nationwide, which—even if the roughly 1,200 federal wage and hour investigators are also counted—is hardly enough to enforce standards for the 87.7 million workers who are covered by these laws.48 To more effectively enforce the law, policymakers must not only beef up governmental labor inspectorates but also include worker and community organizations—from unions to worker centers, religious organizations, and other volunteer groups—in their enforcement efforts.

Under a Ghent-like co-enforcement model, government could complement its traditional enforcement activity by partnering with unions and worker organizations, as Janice Fine of Rutgers University and Jennifer Gordon of Fordham University have explained.49 These co-enforcers can act as trusted intermediaries between workers and government, as well as provide guidance to workers seeking to challenge labor violations in their workplace, since doing so often involves legitimate risks, such as retaliation from employers, for individual workers.50 Co-enforcers also have contact with workers in more workplaces than even well-resourced government inspectors are likely to reach. The benefits of co-enforcement are numerous. Literature notes that co-enforcement initiatives improve short-term “compliance and enforcement”; generate “professional development, sophistication, and commitment of enforcement officials”; and produce “modest revenue increases, better legitimacy, and a strengthened institutional framework for groups working with, and composed of, low-wage workers most vulnerable to wage theft and other substandard working conditions.”51 Studies have also found that “when employees are represented by a union, … compliance with Fair Labor Standards Act overtime regulations is increased.”52

Public programs—such as health care and retirement benefits—that are designed to help workers can be difficult to navigate alone, leading to underutilization. Evidence suggests that the public often fails to receive benefits, even where benefits do exist. For example, only about 40 percent of unemployed workers apply for unemployment insurance, and less than 30 percent receive it.53 Improving these public supports will require partnering with workers and worker organizations in new ways.

Studies suggest that union members are more likely than nonunion members to receive workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance than nonunion members.54 Indeed, according to a 1997 study, blue-collar workers who were laid off from union jobs were about 23 percent more likely than comparable nonunion workers to receive unemployment insurance benefits.55 Professors John W. Budd and Brian P. McCall speculate that unions drive higher takeup rates by acting as a “conduit of information.” They argue that unions reduce the “costs” of applying for benefits by providing information about how and where to apply, helping collect evidence in case of disputed claims, and providing representation in hearings over disputes. They found anecdotal evidence to support this theory.56 University of Buffalo law professor Matthew Dimick argues that unions and employers collaborating on unemployment insurance policy led to efficiency gains and “reduce[d] employer resistance and workplace adversarialism.”57 Using worker organizations as navigators could increase the effectiveness of government programs and would also provide an opportunity for worker organizations to build relationships with workers.

In short, a Ghent-like system could boost union membership and, thus, workers’ power to collectively bargain for improved wages and benefits. It could also help address critical gaps in public programs such as training, enforcement, and benefits navigation.

Existing Ghent-like systems in the United States

While the idea of using nongovernmental organizations to administer government services may seem unfamiliar in a U.S. context, it is actually quite common. Across the country, governments have partnered with unions and other nonprofit worker organizations to improve a number of government services, most notably worker training, labor standards enforcement, and benefits navigation. These programs provide evidence that a Ghent-like system is already working well in the areas where it is being used. These models could form the basis for building a more robust Ghent-like system in the United States.


The construction trades have some of the biggest and most well-known training programs in the country. For example, brick layers, carpenters, plumbers, and other unionized trades in Wisconsin have formed as part of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP), a relationship with area employers on apprenticeships that provide paid, high-quality training and a union job.58 The WRTP is funded through a variety of sources, including employer contributions and charitable giving, but government support has been important to its success.59

State and local governments also often partner with unions to deliver training programs, and doing so has improved public sector outcomes in relevant agencies and organizations.60 For example, city employees in Toledo, Ohio, developed a program in which union members acted as peer trainers to promote safe work practices, leading to a decrease in employee injuries.61 In California, public safety unions have partnered with the Office of the State Fire Marshal to create a joint apprenticeship committee that enables training consistency by having firefighters from different departments train under the same umbrella organization. This consistency was critical in 2015 when coordinating hundreds of firefighters across the state for a monthlong firefighting effort.62

Washington state’s SEIU Healthcare NW Training Partnership provides an excellent model for how joint labor-management training can be used to improve the quality of government services and simultaneously build worker power. Home care workers in Washington gained the right to organize in 2001 and have since unionized under Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 775.63 That effort, along with two voter initiatives that expanded basic training requirements for home care workers, have transformed both the home care industry and the quality of long-term care.64

The training partnership brings together SEIU 775, the state of Washington, and private employers to tailor training toward the needs of patients, workers, and employers. For union members, the cost of training is entirely covered by bargained employer contributions. But nonunion members can also participate. More than 45,000 workers receive training as part of new and continuing education programs.65 And more than 90 percent of those who start basic training complete it. In addition to basic training, the program offers continuing education, registered apprenticeships for advanced home care, and nurse delegation trainings. Restructuring the home care industry has contributed to a more professionalized workforce, coincided with higher wages, and improved quality of care.66 In 2017, Washington state led the nation in “supporting seniors, adults with disabilities and their family caregivers.”67 The partnership has also provided visibility to the union, which is seen as providing value-added training. Training is a key point of entry to the union for workers.

One of the better-known labor-management training partnerships is the Las Vegas Culinary Academy, which provides preemployment training to people entering the hospitality industry, as well as advanced upgrade training to union members of participating hotels on the Las Vegas Strip.68 The academy arose out of a 1993 collective bargaining agreement between Las Vegas Strip properties and the two local unions—Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and Bartenders Union Local 165—that recognized the need to create a “reliable, trained” workforce and has since acquired its own building and become certified as a postsecondary institution by the state of Nevada.69 Today, the academy trains roughly 1,600 people—the majority of whom are Hispanic or African American—annually.70 Training is free for members of participating Las Vegas Strip properties, and nonunion entrants usually obtain funding from other federal, state, or nonprofit sources.71 State funding helps the programs reach additional workers.72 By working with the industry’s hiring hall to ensure that graduates are first in line for new job openings, the academy creates a clear pathway between training and existing jobs.73

The academy’s unique structure gives the unions a role in structuring and regulating occupations, while also providing opportunities to extend union membership. Professors Mia Gray and James DeFilippis of Cambridge University and Rutgers University, respectively, find that, “[t]hrough the Academy, many unemployed or underemployed local residents have trained … and have found their way into the industry and often, at the same time, into the union.” 74 The academy helps the union recruit new members and form links with the community, thus generating the union density needed for effective bargaining. Over the years, successful unions have allowed many service sector workers, many of them women of color, in Las Vegas to move into the ranks of the middle class.75

As these case studies show, involving unions in training provides an opportunity to increase standards and allows workers to experience the benefits created through collective bargaining.


One of the oldest co-enforcement programs is the Los Angeles Joint Labor Compliance Monitoring Program. Through it, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) partners with trade unions to train volunteers to enforce the prevailing wage laws on district projects. The district authorizes these volunteers to conduct site visits and interview workers about compliance, as well as help with audits, hearings, and review conferences.76 The volunteers gather information and alert the city to problems, making it possible for city inspectors to determine penalties.77 Professors Fine and Gordon noted that the program has expanded the city inspectorate’s capacity by allowing it to include labor compliance in its work, not just workmanship.78 The volunteers proved especially useful in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the size of the LAUSD’s compliance staff shrunk dramatically.79

Having industry knowledge can give unions an edge over typical labor inspectors. In 2006, for instance, “revelations of persistent violations in the janitorial industry” led California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to form the Janitorial Enforcement Team (JET).80 The Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF)—a janitorial watchdog established in 1999 by local employers and a local union—and other advocates had long argued that policing the janitorial sector required inspectors with “specific knowledge” of how the industry functions.81 Under a co-enforcement structure, the MCTF helps provide the necessary documentation and “raw material” for a case, after which JET conducts independent investigations.82 In 2007, a more formal partnership between the two entities was formed, leading to a number of successful cases. In one case, the California attorney general and state labor commissioner filed charges against two janitorial contractors for failing to pay their workers $5 million in wages.83 In another, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office sued cleaning companies for $7.4 million.84 In the supermarket sector, JET recovered $22 million from stores and led to 3,000 janitorial jobs coming back to the formal sector. It has also led to a change in business practices, as janitorial contractors for the hotel industry now preference companies that are compliant.85

Several U.S. cities have already instituted formal co-enforcement programs, where government partners with worker organizations to improve enforcement. The city of San Francisco, which has some of the most expansive worker protection laws in the nation, has had a community outreach program for more than a decade. 86 San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE) created a Workers’ Rights Community Collaborative (WRCC) composed of six worker centers and community-based organizations that conduct education and outreach about local labor law.87 The contracts to these organizations are based on certain deliverables measured, for example, in terms of the number of cases brought or resolved or the number of worker meetings held.88 In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, the OLSE obtained $4,527,758 in back wages and interest for its workers. Eighty-five percent of complaints that were filed with the OLSE came through WRCC partners.89 Similarly, in 2015, Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards (OLS) established a Community Outreach and Education Fund that seeks, among other things, to “expand worker’s access to resources to enforce, or otherwise resolve, labor standards violations” and “build capacity among community organizations and service providers to provide labor standards services and information to a diverse range of workers, including low-wage earners, people of color and immigrants and refugees.”90 In February 2017, the Seattle OLS awarded almost $3.3 million over two years to seven organizations and community partnerships.91

These examples demonstrate how employing co-enforcement strategies can improve compliance with labor standards.

Navigation and benefits delivery

There are several examples of worker and community organizations assisting in the navigation of government benefits, including retirement plans, health insurance, and workers’ compensation. In Oregon, the state Department of Administrative Services (DAS) is currently partnering with a local union to pilot a training program aimed at increasing state employee understanding of its retirement and health benefit plans and how to take advantage of them.92 The partnership arose out of a 2017 state executive order to strengthen bargaining and training practices for public employees.93 DAS officials said they believe that training workers on how to navigate the state retirement and health benefits system could generate both immediate and long-term cost savings for the state and workers. If employees understand, for example, that lower-cost health care plans may actually be sufficient to meet their needs, they may be less likely to choose the most expensive plans. Furthermore, the state hopes that highlighting the existence of top-quality benefits will improve worker retention in the public sector.94

However, the DAS had lacked the capacity to consistently deliver on its own this training. The partnership promises to fill that gap. Although the evaluation of the pilot program is still underway, more than 450 workers have completed the training, with workers generally reporting satisfaction with the training so far. Both the state of Oregon and the union have said they hope to expand the program going forward.95

New York state has long delivered portable benefits to certain workers through a unique structure called The Black Car Fund. The fund, which was created by statute in 1999, provides workers’ compensation and other benefits to the state’s black car and luxury limousine drivers, who are typically independent contract workers and thus ineligible for, among other benefits, the state’s workers compensation program for employees. The fund covers medical and rehabilitation costs, in addition to lost wages, for workers who are injured on the job and is financed through a required 2.5 percent surcharge on all passenger fares. 96 While the government established the fund—at the urging of workers—as a nonprofit workers’ compensation insurance provider, The Black Car Fund is responsible for administering the benefits.97 The Independent Drivers Guild, a Machinists Union affiliate, has been partnering with The Black Car Fund to offer additional benefits such as vision and telemedicine.98

Unions also have a record of helping people sign up for public health insurance. When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was passed in 2010, many of those expected to enroll were previously uninsured or had never interacted with the health care system before. And polls revealed that the majority, or two-thirds, of uninsured, low-income people did not understand how the ACA would affect them.99 Community health navigators—often community groups and unions that received government funding for these activities—played an important role in raising awareness and assisting with benefits sign-up.100 In 2014, one union sponsored 175 free and public enrollment fairs in California, and 1,600 members volunteered at various events to help community members enroll in Medi-Cal and Covered California. More than 11,000 Californians enrolled in health care at the union-sponsored events, some of the highest numbers of any organization in the state. When the Covered California website slowed down due to high traffic, the union also distributed certificates that would allow people waiting in line to be eligible for a sign-up extension.101 In 2013, another local union that received a $1 million grant through Covered California’s Outreach and Education Program placed more than 150,000 robocalls in Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese, as well as 75,000 phone bank calls, to urge residents in the Bay Area to sign up for the ACA.102.pdf. ] While the ACA included a number of provisions that restricted member recruitment during navigation activities—and thus was not like the Ghent system—the example suggests that more robustly including unions in helping workers access government programs would improve takeup rates.

Utilizing worker organizations as navigators of public programs and administrators of portable benefits is not a new idea. Given its success, however, there is clear potential to significantly expand these efforts.


Ghent-like policies can benefit the public by improving the quality of government services. They can also deliver for unions and other worker organizations by providing a platform for member recruitment. In addition, because Ghent-like policies help strengthen unions, they can indirectly raise wages, reduce economic inequality, and strengthen democracy. In short, providing worker organizations with a dedicated role in the provision of government services can help address a number of critical issues facing Americans.

There are many existing American programs to build upon to create a much more robust Ghent-like system in the United States. Each of the models discussed in this report—training, co-enforcement, and navigation and benefits delivery—should be replicated and expanded. There is room to do so at the federal, state, and local levels. Governments should establish dedicated funding to support labor-management workforce intermediaries and allow or require occupational training requirements to be completed in labor-management partnerships.103 Similarly, governments should adopt and adequately fund co-enforcement models as well as expand the use of unions as navigators and deliverers of health and retirement benefits.104

Beyond merely replicating existing Ghent-like programs, policymakers should seek to build upon the concept. For example, unemployment insurance should be made more like a Ghent system, with unions helping workers navigate the benefits process and protecting workers against employer retribution. Doing so would likely improve takeup rates and thereby increase the program’s effectiveness as a macroeconomic stabilizer. Some indicators suggest the next recession could be coming relatively soon,105 so the time is right for this kind of policy.

More generally, worker organizations should be involved in the navigation and delivery of the full range of governmental benefits that workers need—including health, retirement, training, and other benefits, as well as enforcement of the law—rather than just a single program. Indeed, something approaching this concept is being advanced in legislation for independent contractors in Washington state so that unions and other worker organizations will have a formal role in enforcing wage standards and administering a government-sanctioned fund that could deliver training and other benefits.106

It may take some experimentation to find the optimal mix of programs for unions to help administer in a Ghent-like system in America. But as this report demonstrates, there are opportunities across the federal, state, and local levels for policymakers to involve unions and worker organizations in training, navigation, and co-enforcement efforts. Doing so would help not only workers and their unions, but also the government and the public.

About the authors

David Madland is a senior fellow and the senior adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress.

Malkie Wall is a research assistant for Economic Policy at the Center.


The authors would like to thank Karla Walter and Meghan Miller for assistance on this report.


  1. Karla Walter and David Madland, “American Workers Need Unions: 3 Steps to Strengthen the Federal Labor Law System” (Washington: Center for American Progress Action Fund, 2019), available at
  2. Barry T. Hirsch, David A. Macpherson, and Wayne G. Vroman, “Union Density Estimates by State, 1964-2018,” available at (last accessed August 2019).
  3. Annette Bernhardt and others, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Laws in America’s Cities” (Washington: National Employment Law Project, 2009), available at
  4. U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, “U.S. Application and Recipiency CY 1988-2018,” available at (last accessed June 2019).
  5. Angela Hanks and David Madland, “Better Training and Better Jobs: A New Partnership for Sectoral Training” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at
  6. See Matthew Dimick, “Labor Law, New Governance, and the Ghent System,” North Carolina Law Review 90 (2)(2012): 319–378, available at arguing, “The Ghent system helps union solve three basic problems of increasing union membership: the recognition problem, the free-rider problem, and the adversarial problem.”
  7. Analyses suggest that union density is roughly 17 percentage points higher in Ghent countries than in non-Ghent countries. See Ibid., footnote 71.
  8. Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019, 116th Cong., 1st sess. (May 2, 2019), available at; Workplace Democracy Act, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (May 9, 2018), available at; Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act of 2018, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (June 27, 2018), available at
  9. OECD.Stat, “Trade union density,” available at (last accessed May 2019).
  10. Hanks and Madland, “Better Training and Better Jobs.”
  11. Karla Walter and David Madland, “10 Ways State and Local Officials Can Build Worker Power in 2019,” Center for American Progress Action Fund, December 12, 2018, available at
  12. David Madland, “The Future of Worker Voice and Power” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2016), available at
  13. Kurt Vandaele, “A report from the homeland of the Ghent system: the relationship between unemployment and trade union membership in Belgium,” Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research 12 (4) (2006), available at; Madland, “The Future of Worker Voice and Power.”
  14. See for example, Dimick, “Labor Law, New Governance, and the Ghent System.”
  15. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that it is a violation of human rights to compel a person to join a specific trade union in order to obtain employment. See Carsten Jørgensen, “ECHR rules against Danish closed-shop agreements,” Eurofound, January 30, 2006, available at See also Dimick, “Labor Law, New Governance, and the Ghent System,” pp. 354–355.
  16. OECD.Stat, “Trade union density,” available at (last accessed June 2019). Trade union density numbers reflect the most recent data available: 2015 for Sweden and 2016 for Finland.
  17. Madland, “The Future of Worker Voice and Power.”
  18. OECD.Stat, “Trade union density,” available at (last accessed May 2019).
  19. See footnotes 71 and 72 in Dimick, “Labor Law, New Governance, and the Ghent System.” For union membership rates see OECD.Stat, “Trade union density.”
  20. Jens Lind, “The End of the Ghent System as Trade Union Recruitment Machinery?”, Industrial Relations Journal 40 (6) (2009): 510–523, available at; Anders Kjellberg, “The Decline in Swedish Union Density since 2007,” Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies 1 (1) (2011), available at,; Petri Böckerman and Roope Uusitalo, “Erosion of the Ghent System and Union Membership Decline: Lessons from Finland,” British Journal of Industrial Relations 44 (2) (2006): 283–303, available at
  21. See Table 2 in Jochen Clasen and Elke Viebrock, “Voluntary Unemployment Insurance and Trade Union Membership: Investigating the Connections in Denmark and Sweden” Journal of Social Policy 37 (3) (2008): 433–451, available at
  22. Ibid.
  23. Niels Finn Christiansen, The Nordic Model of Welfare: A Historical Reappraisal (Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2005), p. 109.
  24. Walter and Madland, “American Workers Need Unions.”
  25. David Madland and Alex Rowell, “Combating Pay Gaps with Unions and Expanded Collective Bargaining” (Washington: Center for American Progress Action Fund, 2018), available at
  26. Richard Freeman and others, “Bargaining for the American Dream: What Unions do for Mobility” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2015), available at; Walter and Madland, “American Workers Need Unions.”
  27. Walter and Madland, “American Workers Need Unions.”
  28. Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).
  29. Roland Zullo, “Union Membership and Political Inclusion,” ILR Review 62 (1) (2008), available at; J. Ryan Lamare, “Union Influence on Voter Turnout: Results from Three Los Angeles County Elections,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 63 (3) (2010), available at; Dukhong Kim, “Labor Unions and Minority Group Members’ Voter Turnout,” Social Science Quarterly 97 (5) (2016), available at; Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, “Unions, Voter Turnout, and Class Bias in the U.S. Electorate, 1964-2004,” Journal of Politics 69 (2) (2007): 430–441, available at
  30. Ibid.
  31. Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson, “Union membership, coverage, density, and employment among all wage and salary workers, 1973-2018,” (last accessed June 2019).
  32. Walter and Madland, “American Workers Need Unions ”; Freeman and others, “Bargaining for the American Dream”; Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, “Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality,” The American Sociological Review 76 (4) (2011): 513–537, available at
  33. Angela Hanks and David Madland, “Young workers deserve better training,” MarketWatch, April 5, 2018, available at
  34. Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, and Andrew R, Hanson, “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees” (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2012), available at; Clive Belfield and Thomas Bailey, “The Labor Market Returns to Sub-Baccalaureate College: A Review” (New York: Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment, 2017), available at
  35. Hanks and Madland, “Young workers deserve better training.”
  36. The Hamilton Project, “Labor Market Training Expenditures as a Percent of GDP in OECD Countries, 2011,” Brookings Institution, June 19, 2014, available at Note that recent, comprehensive data on training are limited, and there are mixed opinions where it comes to the state of training in the United States. See, for instance, Peter Cappelli, “Skill Gaps, Skill Shortages and Skill Mismatches: Evidence for the US” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014), available at; Robert I. Lerman, “Are Employers Providing Enough Training? Theory, Evidence, and Policy Implications” (Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 2015), available at
  37. Hanks and Madland, “Better Training and Better Jobs.”
  38. For further discussion of the system, see Ibid.
  39. Alison L. Booth, Marco Francesconi, and Gylfi Zoega, “Unions, Work-Related Training, and Wages: Evidence for British Men,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 57 (1) (2003): 68–91, available at; Christian Dustmann and Uta Schönberg, “Training and Union Wages” (2005), available at; Jason Heyes and Mark Stuart, “Bargaining for Skills: Trade Unions and Training at the Workplace,” British Journal of Industrial Relations 36 (3) (1998): 459–467, available at
  40. Cihan Bilginsoy, “The Hazards of Training: Attrition and Retention in Construction Industry Apprenticeship Programs,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 57 (1) (2003): 54–67, available at; Cihan Bilginsoy, “Unemployment, the Great Recession, and apprenticeship attrition in the U.S.,” Journal of Vocational Education & Training 70 (2) (2017): 171–192, available at
  41. Lameck Onsarigo and others, “The Economic, Fiscal, and Social Effects of Ohio’s Prevailing Wage Law” (Chicago: Illinois Economic Policy Insitute, 2017), available at; Kevin Duncan and Frank Manzo IV, “The Economic, Fiscal, and Social Effects of Kentucky’s Prevailing Wage Law” (Chicago: Illinois Economic Policy Institute, 2016), available at
  42. Robert W. Glover and Cihan Bilginsoy, “Registered apprenticeship training in the U.S. construction industry,” Education and Training 47 (4/5) (2005): 337–349, available at
  43. Celine McNicholas, Zane Mokhiber, and Adam Chaikof, “Two billion dollars in stolen wages were recovered for workers in 2015 and 2016—and that’s just a drop in the bucket” (Washington: Economic Policy Institute, 2017), available at
  44. Alana Semuels, “The Future of the Department of Labor Under Trump,” The Atlantic, March 6, 2017, available at; Alana Semuels, “Why the Puzder Nomination Fell Apart,” The Atlantic, February 15, 2017, available at; Allen Smith, “DOL Narrows Independent Contractor Classification,” Society for Human Resource Management, July 16, 2015, available at
  45. For instance, Wage Hour Division (WHD) Administrator Cheryl Stanton plans to eliminate the separate office that enforces wage and hour requirements for government contractors, suggesting that the WHD is de-prioritizing those investigations. See Ben Penn, “Trump Wage Chief Overhauls Agency, Internal Documents Reveal,” Bloomberg Law, August 22, 2019, available at Additionally, the Labor Department’s new Payroll Audit Independent Determination program allows employers who self-report wage violations to avoid penalties. See U.S. Department of Labor, “PAID,” available at (last accessed September 2019); U.S. Department of Labor, “U.S. Department of Labor Announces New Program to Expedite Payment to American Workers,” Press release, March 6, 2018, available at
  46. Deborah Berkowitz, “Workplace Safety and Enforcement Continues to Decline in Trump Administration” (Washington: National Employment Law Project, 2019), available at
  47. David Madland and Alex Rowell, “How State and Local Governments Can Strengthen Worker Power and Raise Wages” (Washington: Center for American Progress Action Fund, 2017), available at  
  48. National Employment Law Project, “Winning Wage Justice: An Advocate’s Guide to State and City Policies to Fight Wage Theft” (New York: 2011), available at
  49. Janice Fine and Jennifer Gordon, “Strengthening Labor Standards Enforcement Through Partnerships with Workers’ Organizations,” Politics & Society 38 (4) (2010): 552–585, available at’_Organizations; Janice Fine, “Co-Production: Bringing Together the Unique Capabilities of Government and Society for Stronger Labor Standards Enforcement” (Northampton, MA: The Labor Innovations for the 21st Century Fund, 2015), available at
  50. Madland and Rowell, “How State and Local Governments Can Strengthen Worker Power and Raise Wages.”
  51. Seema N. Patel and Catherine L. Fisk, “California Co-Enforcement Initiatives that Facilitate Workers Organizing,” Harvard Law and Policy Review 12 (2017), available at Note also, case studies suggest that partnerships with unions have noticeably improved enforcement outcomes. For instance, Patel and Fisk describe a University of California, Los Angeles study that found that between 2008 and 2011, the vast majority of workers—83 percent—who got judgements for unpaid wages never actually received any money. After the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement contracted with the Wage Justice Center (WJC) to enforce unpaid judgements, the WJC dramatically improved judgement enforcement, obtaining more than $8.25 million on behalf of 5,500 workers. Eunice Hyunhye Cho, Tia Koonse, and Anthony Mischel, “Hollow Victories: The Crisis in Collecting Unpaid Wages for California’s Workers” (New York: National Employment Law Project and Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center, 2013), available at; Patel and Fisk, “California Co-Enforcement Initiatives that Facilitate Workers Organizing.”
  52. John W. Budd and Brian P. McCall, “The Effect of Unions on the Receipt of Unemployment Insurance Benefits,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 50 (3) (1997): 478, available at; Stephen J. Trejo, “The Effects of Overtime Pay Regulation on Worker Compensation,” American Economic Review 81 (4) (1991): 719–740, available at
  53. U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, “U.S. Application and Recipiency CY 1988-2018.”
  54. For workers’ compensation, see Barry T. Hirsch, David A. Macpherson, and J. Michael Dumond, “Workers’ Compensation Recipiency in Union and Nonunion Workplaces,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 50 (2) (1997): 213–236, available at For unemployment insurance, see Marc Chan, Marios Michaelides, and Sisi Zhang, “Who Receives Unemployment Insurance?” Research in Applied Economics 6 (3) (2014), available at
  55. Budd and McCall, “The Effect of Unions on the Receipt of Unemployment Insurance Benefits.”
  56. Ibid. For last point, see p. 481.
  57. Dimick, “Labor Law, New Governance, and the Ghent System.”
  58. WRTP BIG STEP, “About WRTP – BIG STEP,” available at (accessed April 2019); WRTP BIG STEP, “Getting Into the Trades,” available at (accessed July 2019).
  59. WRTP BIG STEP, “Donate and Invest in Our Workforce,” available at (last accessed July 2019); Amy Dupont, “‘It’s a great model:’ Gov. Evers celebrates workforce development programs in Milwaukee,” Fox News, January 14, 2019, available at; WRTP BIG STEP, “Center of Excellence,” available at (last accessed September 2019); Joan Fitzgerald, Moving Up in the New Economy: Career Ladders for U.S. Workers (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), Chapter 6.
  60. See Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, brief of amici curiae Gov. Tom Wolf and others, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, No. 16-1466 (January 18, 2018), available at; Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, brief of amici curiae fifteen unions and umbrella organizations that provide services to affiliated unions and associations representing nearly half a million public safety employees, No. 16-1466 (January 19, 2018), available at
  61. Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, brief of amici curiae Gov. Tom Wolf and others.
  62. Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, brief of amici curiae fifteen unions and umbrella organizations that provide services to affiliated unions and associations representing nearly half a million public safety employees.
  63. Vickie Choitz, Matt Helmer, and Maureen Conway, “Improving Jobs to Improve Care: The SEIU Healthcare NW Training Partnership” (Washington: Aspen Institute, 2015), available at
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Ibid.
  67. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, “Washington tops national rankings for supporting seniors, adults with disabilities,” Press release, June 14, 2017, available at
  68. Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, “Class Information,” available at (last accessed June 2019).
  69. Jeffrey Waddoups, “Union-Management Training Partnerships in the Hotel Industry: The Cases of Las Vegas and San Francisco” (Las Vegas: University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Department of Economics, 2002), available at; Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, “Our History,” available at (last accessed June 2019).
  70. Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, “FAQ,” available at (last accessed July 2019); Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, “About Us,” available at (last accessed July 2019).
  71. Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, “FAQ.”
  72. Mia Gray, James DeFillippis, “Learning from Las Vegas: Unions and post-industrial urbanization,” Urban Studies 52 (9) (2014): 1683–1701, available at
  73. Ibid.
  74. Ibid., p. 1696
  75. Ibid.
  76. Los Angeles Unified School District, “Joint Compliance Monitoring Program: Los Angeles Unified School District and All Work Preservation Groups, Rules of Engagement (Fiscal Year 2019-20)” available at (last accessed September 2019); City of Los Angeles, “Labor Compliance Manual” (Los Angeles: 2014), available at
  77. Tia Koonse, Miranda Dietz, and Annette Bernhardt, “Enforcing City Minimum Wage Laws in California: Best Practices and City-State Partnerships” (Los Angeles and Berkeley, CA: University of California, Los Angeles Center for Labor Research and Education; Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, 2015), available at
  78. Fine and Gordon, “Strengthening Labor Standards Enforcement Through Partnerships with Workers’ Organizations.”
  79. Ibid.
  80. Ibid., p. 566.
  81. Ibid., p. 566.
  82. Ibid., p. 567.
  83. Ibid.
  84. Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, “CA State Labor Commission sues cleaning companies for over $7 million,” Press release, January 12, 2009, available at
  85. Fine and Gordon, “Strengthening Labor Standards Enforcement Through Partnerships with Workers’ Organizations.”
  86. Patel and Fisk, “California Co-Enforcement Initiatives that Facilitate Workers Organizing.”
  87. National Employment Law Project, “Enforcement of a $15 Minimum Wage in Minneapolis Requires Strategic Community Partners” (New York: 2017), available at
  88. Ibid.
  89. Ibid.
  90. Ibid.
  91. Seattle Office of Labor Standards, “2017-2019 Community Outreach and Education Fund,” available at (last accessed April 2019).
  92. Karla Walter, “Public Sector Training Partnerships Build Power” (Washington: Center for American Progress, forthcoming).
  93. Office of the Governor, State of Oregon, “Executive Order 17-08: Strengthening Public Employee Bargaining and Training Practices,” (last accessed September 2019).
  94. This information comes from interviews conducted by the author of a forthcoming report. See Walter, “Public Sector Training Partnerships Build Power.”
  95. Ibid.
  96. The Black Car Fund, “History,” available at (last accessed June 2019).
  97. The Black Car Fund, “F.A.Q.’s,” available at (last accessed June 2019).
  98. Independent Drivers Guild, “About the IDG,” available at (last accessed June 2019); IDG Benefits Fund, “Home,” available at (last accessed June 2019).
  99. Community Catalyst, “Connecting Consumers to Coverage: Mobilizing for Enrollment, The Promise of the Affordable Care Act” (Boston: 2014), available at
  100. Ibid.
  101. SEIU-UHW, “SEIU-UHW enrolls 11,000 Californians in health coverage,” April 2, 2014, available at All told, SEIU-UHW signed up more than 20,000 people for Medi-Cal and Covered California during the first two years of health care enrollment. See SEIU-UHW, “Dave Regan Re-Elected Vice President of SEIU,” May 25, 2016, available at  
  102. Juliet Eilperin, “The ACA enrollment surge, by the numbers,” The Washington Post, March 31, 2014, available at For grant information, see Covered California, “Outreach and Education Grant Program Award Recipients” (2013), p. 36, available at[1
  103. Hanks and Madland, “Better Training and Better Jobs”; Walter and Madland, “10 Ways State and Local Officials Can Build Worker Power in 2019.”
  104. Walter and Madland, “10 Ways State and Local Officials Can Build Worker Power in 2019.”
  105. Spriha Srivastava, “The US bond yield curve has inverted. Here’s what it means,” CNBC, March 25, 2019, available at
  106. State of Washington, S.B. 5690, 66th Legislature (January 28, 2019), available at

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David Madland

Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project

Malkie Wall

Research Associate