Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Unions

NEPArtisan asked me what I have against labor unions, and while I don't necessarily feel compelled to explain myself to anyone (since that's about the only benefit to getting older), it is a reasonable question to ask. So throwing caution to the wind, here goes.


BACKGROUND
I've never been a member of a labor union, although two members of my family are (one is a member of the Scranton Federation of Teachers and another works for the Federal Government & is represented by NFFE), so it is not as if I am totally alien to the concept. Also, I've actually read several Collective Bargaining Agreements before, including the last two SFT/SSD documents. Finally on a professional level, I have some experience with union pension plans. All told, I think I have a pretty good grasp of what unions are and what they do.

The above noted, I am not necessarily anti-union, although I don't consider myself to be a union supporter either, except in a few instances. What's more, I think that some of the benefits of unionization, such as reasonable job protection, come at too high a price...namely institutionalized mediocrity. More on that in a moment. There are, however, some instances where I think unions play a critical role in our society.


WHERE UNIONS ARE VALUABLE
There are certain occupations where workers are subject to real physical risks and in concert with that, there might be a temptation on the part of management to increase profits via reduced worker safety. Mining comes to mind as being this kind of occupation. In that instance I think that unionization is almost essential, as collectively employees can force management not take actions that might endanger lives. Northeastern Pennsylvania, with its history of coal barons and exploited workers, has been something of a Petri Dish for this argument. Clearly, labor unions played the key role in the advancement of worker safety, as well as prohibitions against child labor and other initiatives that have significantly improved our society.

Also, while workers at WalMart are not routinely subject to physical risks, that company stands out as being so arrogant in its treatment of employees that I think a union would actually help matters. For that reason I don't normally shop at WalMart and I do regularly read websites such as WalMart Watch and Wake Up WalMart.


WHERE UNIONS MAKE THINGS WORSE
On the flip side, here is my central argument against most labor unions: conceptually they demand the equal compensation for individuals performing the same job for the same period of time. In my mind that's highly illogical. Why? Because it assumes that all workers perform at the same level of competence, which is simply incorrect. What's more, that mentality has the net impact of rewarding mediocrity. Case in point: if union members Bob and Fred are going to get paid the same amount anyway (assuming they perform the same job and stated at the same date...not uncommon in say a factory or a classroom), why should Bob or Fred work any harder? For the collective good? To quote former mobster Henry Hill, ppplllleeeeaaaassssseeeee!

In my simplistic mind, a basic tenant of work is that if you work harder you should get paid more.

Here's another problem I have with unions: their existence is predicated on two basic assumptions...

1. The Mute Employee
Employees are always unable to speak for themselves & therefore need someone to represent them.
2. The Evil Employer
Management never has the best interests of employees at heart and as a result someone needs to protect employees.

While both points are true sometimes, they are not true all the time. I realize that the classic anti-union tact is to claim that unions create a barrier between labor and management, which is actually true...unions do create a barrier. Sometimes that barrier was created by management in the first place though (for example via sheer arrogance and greed, which is the case at WalMart), in which case the employer deserves a union*. Let's be honest here as well: sometimes that barrier is actually created by the union.


WHO SHOULD BE IN A UNION?

I can only really speak for myself, and as such I will most likely never belong to a union. I never, ever want anyone speaking for me; as anyone who is reading this can tell, I'm pretty good at speaking for myself. This is a trait I learned from my mom. That noted, I want others to have that same basic right: to join or not to join, based on their own desires and preferences.

If a group of employees...such as Catholic School Teachers...want to form a union, then I do believe that is their right. That right should not be discouraged, and no one should be imputed because of that desire. On the flip side, no one should be forced to join a union. That would mean giving up union negotiated benefits, but so be it; that person though should not be forced to pay for the operation of the union that doesn't speak for them.

Speaking of teachers, do I think they should be in a union? Conceptually no, but my personal experience in Scranton has taught me that teacher unions are something of a necessary evil. Yes, good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers (and bad teachers should be fired...unlike a bolt that is caught in quality control, a poorly educated child can't simply be "fixed"), which traditionally hasn't happened in a unionized environment (although that is slowly changing...see opinion piece HERE). The previously noted point has to be balanced though with a sad reality of education...namely that all teachers should be protected from the political nonsense that local-yokel School Board members are known to perpetuate. The "$5,000 for a teaching job in Wilkes-Barre" news is proof that many local school board members are inept at best, possibly crooked at worst. It seems unreasonable to me that an individual teacher would able to protect him/herself from the inept politically motivated actions of a School Board member without a collective force in support. Are there alternatives? Sure, and I'm open to the idea of something like "teachers as civil servants", but I've not heard of anything that didn't eventually de-evolve into something that looked and quacked just like a union anyway.

Now teachers are but one of many occupations I could discuss in this entry, but I think they are an interesting case in point. Do I think that other professionals should be unionized? It depends, but I do have an over-arching thought on the subject: Professionals in any occupation should be able to speak for themselves and they should be able to excel based upon their performance as individuals, not as a group.


IN CONCLUSION
I'm not a "black or white" kind of guy, and by and large I think that people who tend to view the world through such simplistic lenses are retarded (and I don't care if Sarah Palin is offended by that term). I know it would be far more entertaining and engaging to simply say "unions are greedy & they suck" or "business is evil & employees need to be protected", but in my heart I know that neither statement is entirely, factually correct.



(*) "A union is the reward that an employer who doesn't respect its employees gets"; not sure who said this, but it's definitely true.

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