THE BUSINESS BOOMER – #5 -There’s Nothing “U” About Unions

I was only a member of one union in my working life.. something called the Elevator Operators and Doormans Union in Chicago.  I think I was about 17 years of age and I answered an ad to be a part time summer replacement doorman and elevator operator.  Actually it lasted about a month as I was replacing the vacationing regular doorman and elevator operators at a couple swanky North Shore apartment buildings.  I was asked to report for the interview at an office above some older retail shops.  I recall a fairly barren office space with a single desk in the center of the room.  There was a chair in front of the desk.. which is where I sat.  It rather had the flavor of one of those seedy private investigator offices you see in the movies.

The interview was pretty quick… and I was asked up front for $12 for union dues.  It felt a little odd that I had to pay to get a job, being only 17 years of age.  But he told me everyone had to join the union.  Given the surroundings and this guy hustling me for money I sorta thought I’d end up wearing cement shoes at the bottom of the North Branch of the Chicago River if I turned him down.  But the job proved legit and it was a great learning experience on many levels.  Oddly, being in the union pretty much meant nothing at my level of participation as my job locales were different.  So it was not a true working union environment.

My second experience with being in a union environment was when I was working for Aldens, the now defunct mail order house.  But this time I wasn’t a union member.. rather a member of management.  The experience was far different than my previous union membership summer job.  I have never been so appalled and amazed at the waste and inefficiency of a union environment.  I was one of six or seven customer service supervisors; each of us having a particular section of clerical workers moving stacks of paper… customer cases.  The union was some sort of clerical operators union.. the name escapes me.  But it was a Teamsters thing.  You could pretty much feel the tension between management and the union all the time.  The clerical staff was measured by productivity standards in the moving of complaint cases (mounds of paper) from one pile to the next.  Hence the standards were negotiated in the union contract.  When the rank-in-file clerks felt that they were being picked on, individually or collectively, they would complain to the shop steward who then represented them in talks with the immediate management.  And there were lots of complaints… and lots of meetings with the department manager.  That union manual was used by both sides to justify action one way or the other.  In my three years with that company not one positive initiative was set forth to make positive change in the operation of the customer service department.  Any ideas had to pass muster with the union and the union made sure that no one’s job was in jeopardy and no job duties were unfairly changed.  The whole process stifled incentive, initiative, motivation, and innovation.  Us supervisors were right in the middle of it, too.  As management we couldn’t pick up that phone ringing, move that stack of papers, or train our people.  In effect we were just glorified babysitters for management.

When Aldens went out of business I made it a goal never to work in a union environment ever again… and I haven’t.  That being my first management job in a corporate setting I did learn a lot and I came away from that experience understanding that being in a union is not about the individual but rather about the group; spreading social equality at the price of creative individualism.

My father-in-law was in the United Steel Workers in Chicago and we would have many discussions about unions… much of it tongue-in-cheek in my case.  We’d badger each other jokingly from time to time about the merits, and non-merits of being in a union.  But he was an avid union man and loyal to the union.  That in itself always bothered me… that work loyalties were first to the union and then to the company.

I’m more non-union than anti-union.

Regardless of my past experiences with unions I have never really been anti-union in my opinions.. more like “non-union”.  I’m into “union busting” but not in terms of knocking heads and making threats to employees with lockouts, etc., simply for the sake of eliminating the concept of unions.  I am totally for the idea of treating the employee fairly and doing that in such a way as to encourage personal workplace growth and incentive.  In doing that we can then keep away unionism.

Unions helped form America’s middle class.

There’s no question that unions and collective bargaining have been a deciding factor in the development of a solid middle class in this country.  In a growing free market capitalistic society unions can be a valuable evolutionary process in creating a vibrant middle class, which in turn becomes the economic class that makes the most purchases and stimulates the economy.  But when we look at the reasons unions are formed we see their existance came about because of poor working conditions.  This goes beyond just environmental, but also regarding uniform work performance to assure some measure of job security.  Now, as a businessman I recognize that the greatest asset to any business is its employees.  In the early years of this nation few businesses held to that concept and as a result employees were used and abused in various ways.

Broom makers? Go figure.

In recent decades there has been a decline in unions, much of that brought about by businesses realizing that to keep out a union all you need to do is keep your employees happy.  Along with that has been unions themselves, their management specifically, abusing their power, taking liberties with pension plans, and making alliances with organized crime.  In the areas that I would agree a union might still be effective is in the trades and in government.  Why?

Well, many business owners in the trades were also tradesmen once themselves, and as I’ve mentioned before in other posts, just because you know how to handle a wrench properly doesn’t mean you can run a business and manage others in handling a wrench.  In other words, handling a wrench doesn’t mean you have people skills or business acumen.  Hence many trade business owners are small businesses and don’t have a lot of tact or concern for making their employees happy because they are worrying about keeping costs down.  Also, the trades are generally tough work.. outside in all kinds of weather, tempertures, risky heights and locations, risky use of equipment, etc.  There’s a general enviromental unpredictability in the work environment.  Unions tend to level the playing field within their trades, making sure work environments and work standards are equitable.  Without the job security and workplace safety and high pay (relative to other non-trade jobs) it would be difficult to attract more workers.

Within government it’s a little different.  Employees of the various agencies fall into budgetary constraints that can affect environmental safety and job security.  In other words, if Congress is unable to provide enough money for an agency to operate it could affect safety and job security and employee retention.  Having a union in place helps to provide Congress with a monetary requirement for employees to operate safely and effectively.   We often look down upon police, fire, and paramedics being in unions because the threat of a strike would place the public in jeopardy.  Yet being in a union allows the emergency services people to get the tools they need and retain the employees to keep efficient… and make sure these dollars are inside any budgets submitted to the voters or legislators.  It’s more like given the lack of being a true business entity, government employees are given a voice to those who control the purse strings.

But unions are far from gone from the American scene.  It behooves each and every business to understand that their employees are their greatest asset and when that’s realized then there’s no need for a union.


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