Follow Up On The Picket Line

December 14, 2007 - by: Julie Elgar 12 COMMENTS

It is not that I don’t support the writers of The Office.  I do.  But I also think their situation is different than most other industries in the private sector.  When I look at the issue of unionization from a more global perspective, I firmly believe that most employees and companies are better off without a union.  Not to say that there aren’t some workplaces out there were a union isn’t the right choice.  It is just that those instances are few and far between.

Some have commented that employees need unions to obtain better pay.  This is a fallacy which is easily dispelled.  A union cannot guarantee better pay: it can simply try to negotiate for it  (much like employees can do without a union – and without paying union dues).  And when the union and the company do negotiate there are three possibilities:  (1) wages and benefits go up; (2) wages and benefits go down; and (3) wages and benefits could stay the same.

A union also cannot guarantee jobs or benefits.  Jobs are protected only as long as a company continues to operate profitably.  Unreasonable union demands, if granted, could make the company uncompetitive or unprofitable and this could hurt both employees and the company.  If the union calls a strike to enforce its demands, it means lost revenue to the Company and lost wages to employees.  As Jerry said a few weeks ago, strikers are not paid.  And, in most states, they can’t get unemployment.  Worse, if a worker does decide to cross the picket line in order to earn money to support her family, the union may fine her.

Employees absolutely deserve respect and dignity.  I just don’t think that the best way to get it for most employees is to vote in a union.  Respect and dignity can only be achieved by employees and management working together toward a common goal of making their business as efficient and productive as it possibly can be to remain competitive.

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1 ACU Frank
12:17:53, 14/12/07

Well said, Julie. My employer is a vendor for one of the largest companies in the U.S., and most of that company’s workers are represented by one of the largest unions in the U.S. We frequently have customers coming in boasting about how bad the union is beating up management, and how the employees are profiting. This week, they’re complaining because 1/3 are facing 1/1/08 layoffs.

They don’t get the connection.

2 Tasha
14:32:10, 14/12/07

I understand what you’re saying, but I respectfully disagree. Perhaps this is merely a difference in personal experience, but my experience has shown me that a) companies don’t always have their employees best interests at heart and b) it’s a lot easier to negotiate with a company if I’m part of a larger group (i.e. a union) than all by myself.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the current personification of the “union” always works well. Perhaps the issue is that I believe in what the union is supposed to be, even though it doesn’t always match reality.

But at the same time, the utopian picture of “employees and management working together toward a common goal of making their business as efficient and productive as it possibly can be” isn’t working out right now either. The distribution of wealth today is as bleak a picture for your run of the mill employee as it was in the 1920′s. If a company becomes more profitable, the gains tend to move toward the top rather than trickle down to the workers. And you can’t blame that on the unions, since union membership has been in a rather steady decline since the Reagan era.

3 Jim M.
19:14:47, 14/12/07

Yes and No. Our location has 5 different trade unions and there are times that they are overbearing and make decision making difficult. Financial decisions are often delayed or negated because of cumbersome but enforceable contract language. On the other hand, companies have done a poor job of holding the loyalty and trust of their employees; this seems to be a more recent dynamic that companies are not recognizing. The disconnection that employees feel prompts their need for security, even the perceived security that unions offer. Company representatives, including HR managers, need to go back to spending time with and quality listening to their employees.

4 Nick
13:20:52, 17/12/07

While I don’t have a specific view either way on unions, I greatly enjoy reading the exchange of ideas and am somewhat amazed and upset by comments on the previous posting about people never visiting here again. Keep up the good work with blog and keep the forum open.

5 ACU Frank
14:51:19, 17/12/07

I agree wholeheartedly, Jim.

Unfortunately, the union doesn’t want that to happen and often won’t allow it.

6 Tasha
15:41:56, 18/12/07

ACU Frank,

Could you just clarify for me… what specifically in Jim’s post are you saying that the union doesn’t want to happen?

7 mks
13:43:16, 27/12/07

With rare exceptions, every single non-unionized employer illegally coerces uncompensated work time from its employees, and without a union contract and grievance system to back you up, there’s diddly you can do about it. Fairness simply doesn’t exist when it’s one worker trying to protect his or her rights against a corporation. The NLRB is a paper tiger and fines for violating labor laws are simply a cost of doing business for employers. As things exist the only route for enforcing employee rights is large-scale lawsuits, which, it is interesting to note, firms like Ford & Harrison disparage as nuisances or worse.

The basic fact is that 40 years ago when 25 percent of the American workforce was unionized, both management and workers (all workers, not just union workers) prospered from fairer distribution of income. Since corporations launched their largely successful war against unionization, the principal effect has been a steadily decline in real wages for employees and out-of-control compensation for executives. It is an unsustainable situation. Unions are needed to preserve the existence of the middle class that creates the quality of life in America that we all enjoy. Without unions we are on a one-way trip back to the age of corporate magnates ruling over an overworked and underpaid serfdom.

8 mks
14:20:30, 27/12/07

I’d like to add my reaction to this statement:

> “A union cannot guarantee better pay: it can simply try to negotiate for it (much like employees can do without a union – and without paying union dues).”

It is laughable to equate collective bargaining with the kind of “negotiation” that is possible for one single employee acting alone. The equalization of bargaining power IS EXACTLY what is at stake. By taking this position, employers are simply saying, “We want the option of refusing to negotiate at all.” Union dues are an insignificant price to pay in order to equalize bargaining power through collective bargaining and work stoppages.

> “If the union calls a strike to enforce its demands, it means lost revenue to the Company and lost wages to employees.”

Again, this statement only makes sense under the pretense that a work stoppage is entirely the union’s fault. Bear Stearns has calculated that if the producers give in to ALL the WGA’s demands, it will have NEGLIGIBLE effect on the producers’ bottom line. So who’s being unreasonable here?

Furthermore, the pain that the WGA and other (mostly unionized) entertainment workers are going through now — they themselves realize that it is to their future benefit. The WGA’s action has been universally supported by other entertainment workers. It is only the producers who makes statements like “The WGA is taking away your children’s Christmas.”

9 Janet Siders
15:24:46, 02/01/08

As an HR professional I have worked in a variety of industries, both union and non-union and I am strongly against them. Ask the employees in the town where I live what they think about it. We ran our non-union automotive plant like a union, with union rules. We paid higher wages than all of the union plants in our company, and in fact, our employees, most of whom were illiterate, were the highest paid people in our county! We had better, cheaper benefits, grievance procedures, bumping rights, etc.

Unfortunately, the company fell on hard times and as we neared bankruptcy, two unions showed up at our door. They promised the employees more money, free benefits and told them lies. Because the employees were greedy and wanted more, a small group decided to vote for the union and they intimidated their co-workers and threatened them into supporting the union. They even made unwelcome visits to employees’ homes and used scare tactics against the employees’ families. Well, our plant fell apart. We couldn’t afford to give the employees more. Because of all of the fighting among the employees, we went from being one of the best-producing plants to one of the worst, with a tremendous drop in quality. Employees starting choosing sides and teamwork went down the toilet. When the company finally went under, some of the other plants were bought by competitors, but not ours. It was too much of a mess. All of the production employees lost their jobs with no hope of obtaining comparable emploment. A year later, most of the employees are still out of work. We’re in a small southern town, and although the union promised the employees that they would find them jobs if they were laid off, that never materialized.

10 Tasha
13:32:48, 07/01/08

mks – I completely agree with your assessment that a single employee at a bargaining table, compared to a union, is completely laughable. There is absolutely no balance of power there.

Janet – I am very sorry to hear about the circumstances that your company went through. I don’t believe that is the way unions should be run.

Perhaps the problem is that modern day unions are run more like corporations? I’ve noticed that there does seem to be more of a disconnect between unions and their members, as members defer to union leadership to run the show (even in so-called “member-run” unions). A situation where employees and management can work together to obtain better wages, better working conditions, and overall a better company, is the ideal. But such a situation works better when the balance of power between the employees and the corporation is equal. Unions – ideally – strive towards this. As I said before though, I’m not sure that this is always what is achieved in the current day structure.

Part of the problem is that people don’t see unions as a member-run group of employees working together towards a common goal. People see unions now as a special club that comes along with a jackpot pull handle. That kind of attitude gets us nowhere.

11 Rick
16:28:40, 21/01/08

Julie, I agree with your analysis and write simply to direct the pro-union commenters to the Center for Union Facts,

12 Russell
12:45:37, 28/02/08

I think this is a very interesting topic. I am not in a union and, to my knowledge, no one in my family has been. But I am struck at the violent reactions to what seems to be a well-reasoned comment on unions and corporations. I personally believe that an employer should reward his/their employees for success in their business or industry. And he should do it in such a way that the word union never enters the conversation.
Here’s the question I would honestly ask those who are members of unions: Do you honestly think that the union cares about you first and foremost?
If so, then ok. But if not, with the dues they collect, how are they any different than the corporation you work for?

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