There are a lot of opinions on worker unions. Many of them are wrong. Recently I have been amused by several magazine pieces dealing with unions from a political view point. These articles have covered a variety of subjects, including: Wal-Mart raising their minimum wage just to avoid becoming unionized: Unions helping poor marriage rates among males with lower incomes: Unions being corrupt, political, voting-blocks who have outlived their usefulness: etc. As with many opinion pieces, some points are easy to absorb and internalize, others, not so much. What I find most interesting is that a person’s pro- or anti- union stance seems to be decided based on their partisan political affiliation. It really shouldn’t be.
Back when youth painted my brow and ambition drove my decisions, I had the interesting experience of negotiating separate local union contracts from the opposite side of the table. In 1981, through an interesting turn of events, I ended up as the Vice President of a small local. Just two years later, I was working as a Labor Relations Specialist for the Department of the Army. My experience in these two capacities, along with the recent retirement of my Pipefitter Uncle, have imparted to me a few foundational principles concerning organized labor. I would like to share them with you.
Any tradesman will tell you that the architect doesn’t really know how to build a building. An exaggeration perhaps but, you see there is a bit of a “disconnect” between the academic and the reality. Anyone who has spent time around a large construction site will have witnessed situations where the architect just didn’t draw something that would work. (Tradesmen like to describe these situations in very colorful and often entertaining language.) When it comes down to it, it is usually the construction worker along with the foreman that figure out how to fix it. So it is with Unions and even Human Resources in general. Because they deal with a very diverse and complex subject material, namely people, Academics often do not translate well in the field.
Academic theory touting that unions will boost employee satisfaction, pay and even benefits frequently fall short when confronted with reality. The cost of membership, antagonistic attitudes toward management, and a “disconnect” between the needs of the local and the National Office, can create a situation where the union is of little assistance and provides little to no value. In the end, union membership becomes a financial burden to the worker rather than an asset.
Likewise, academic ideas which purport that unions no longer have validity fail to see that a well-run union can lift disciplinary issues and other human resource burdens from a modern management team. Working together it is possible to form a symbiotic relationship with a synergistic outcome.
The point here is that unions, like management teams, are not all the same. Having studied my way through a Bachelor of Arts program I learned that “there are a lot more questions than answers.” Later, after completing an MPA program, I surmised that the answer to every question is, “it depends.” Likewise, sometimes a union succeeds and other times it fails. Sometimes worker’s lives are enhanced and sometimes the union becomes a burden. Sometimes, and this is special, a union can benefit both the workers and management. Often such a synergistic opportunity is squandered and lost because of unrelenting negative attitudes of either party to the employee/employer contract.
As mentioned, my uncle recently retired from a life time of union work as a pipefitter. The work is physically demanding with heavy lifting, uncomfortable positions and long hours. It takes place in hot and cold; it can be outside or inside; it may even include “high work.” My uncle, having reached his 60’s, eventually found the physical demands of the job too difficult. He retired to a large travel trailer that he had dragged from job to job over the last decades of his employment. Since he was living in a trailer park and appeared to be somewhat transient, I became concerned about his welfare. During one of our visits I took the opportunity to ask about his financial wellbeing. Unknown to me, over the many years of his union employment, even though he had worked for a myriad of different companies, the union had collected and maintained retirement funds on his behalf. Because of his union retirement benefits, my uncle is financially ok. Knowing that he has sufficient retirement gives me and the rest of my family a sense of relief. In this case, where work was sporadic, scattered across the country and was placed with a variety of different employers, the union provides a very valuable function in centralizing health insurance, retirement savings and employment services. The dues which he paid to the union resulted in a tangible benefit to my uncle.
I read a short time ago that Wal-Mart had raised their minimum wage to $10 an hour. Some pro-union activists were furious! “They only did that to avoid the union from getting their foot in the door!” Well yeah, I suppose that was definitely a part of it. But why the anger? Hasn’t the employee been taken care of? Indeed, the employee is better off but the union is not. In this case the union is superfluous and really has nothing to offer that would provide a sufficient offset for the required dues. The union becomes a liability because Wal-Mart is willing to take care of their Associates. At least they did when I worked for them. I understand that Wal-Mart’s attitude is changing and it may be that in the future a union will be able to provide some benefit for Wal-Mart employees. Today however, they really can’t. Those that want to organize Wal-Mart employees are putting the needs of union ahead of Wal-Mart associates who are being taken care of by the employer. The welfare of the union should never be placed above, or even on a level with, the worker, but always stand a little below in a position of service. If the union becomes more important than the union member then it has become a burden. In order to be viable, a union must provide tangible employee benefits.
That is the thing with unions and why many people end up with mistaken opinions. Unions are first and foremost a service organization not a political one. I find it interesting that there are several unions who have not figured this out yet. Those that haven’t are usually very annoying and ineffective both to the members they should be supporting and to management with whom they should be working.
So what does this field based, non-academic approach to unions teach us? We learn that you really can’t solve national political problems by creating or doing away with unions. Across a national spectrum, work is too diversified and within the United States, employers are too divergent. One answer is not going to fit all. The value of a union is often in the “local” rather than national membership. The academic promotion of unions to better the lives of all workers, when confronted with reality, is not going to be the utopia that it may appear to be in the classroom. Conversely, claiming that no union is benefiting our country or its citizens is equally foolish.
There is a little “red neck” idiom about deer hunting. “Deers is where ya finds ‘em. Sometimes ya finds ‘em and sometimes ya doesn’t.” Unions are like that. Sometimes they provide value and sometimes they don’t. In that respect, unions are very similar to many things in life. You see, the answer is always, “it depends.”
Samuel Waen Jensen