Are unions really the problem?

Written by Ron on September 6th, 2010

Having seen both abusive and unresponsive management/owners and the protection of mediocre and unproductive workers by unions in places I have worked, I have to say that the real problem boils down to humans and egos. Both management and unions are quite capable of ruining a firm when they let egos run amok.

In the labor-management transaction, there needs to be a deal that both sides can live with and that will neither break the firm nor take unfair advantage of the worker. The problem is that in many cases, the unions have come into play only after a history of abuse by the employer, so neither side is really bargaining without an axe to grind. Once in place, unions frequently continue to push for more and more concessions, regardless of the net effect on the health of the employer and because of the employer’s attitude towards workers, the negotiators cannot really trust or believe each other.

Some of the unions themselves are unwilling to deal fairly and openly with their own employees as detailed in this piece by Deroy Murdock in National Review. Here again, it’s all about a few people not being able to distinguish between being CEO or President and being King.

Clearly there are major abuses on both sides. The “rubber room” where some union teachers spend years whiling away the day at the taxpayer’s expense because it is so complicated and expensive to just discharge them is a current example.  But, for every example of a union procedure or benefit that seems unbelievable to the rest of us, there is a negotiator somewhere that agreed to it for that employer.

In the public sector, those seen as “management” may agree to nearly anything as they have no vested interest in the “business” anyway, since revenues are based on taxation and legislation rather than a free-market. For this reason I have some real problems with unions in the public sector, unless the union contracts are subjected to a public vote by either the people or by their elected representatives. Otherwise it is just one government employee making a deal with other government employees while no one really has the responsibility to look after the public interest.

On the other side, I once worked for a firm that kept changing the bonus criteria every other month because someone in the home office decided they were paying too much out in bonuses. The net result was that it became essentially impossible to meet the bonus requirements and the very things the bonus was set up to encourage disappeared. At the same time, pay rates were frozen and the employee share of the benefits plan shot up. Needless to say, productivity suffered greatly and absenteeism became a problem. Disappointed with that outcome, management went for the stick instead of a better carrot and several workers, myself included, started to investigate union representation. It had become clear that the firm’s priorities had changed from encouraging productivity to controlling labor expense within very tight parameters.

Republicans would have us believe that all unions are evil and that business owners and managers are all fair and honest folks who just want to make an honest profit from their efforts. Democrats would have us believe that every worker, whether in private business or on the government payroll must be protected from the evils of management and owners. Like so many other issues, neither tells the whole story. Neither side wants to tell you that most things are not black and white, because then you might actually start evaluating candidates as individuals instead of by party affiliation. To paraphrase, the fault lies not in our unions or employers, but in ourselves.


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