Sunday, December 4, 2011

Unions: The 7 Lies You Must Know

A great article by a Former Union Organizer.
The First Lie - You Can't Lose

This one comes out in every campaign:  A union is a "no lose" proposition.  Weaker organizers just promise employees will get a big pay raise or improved benefits if they vote in a union.  Smarter organizers (and the weaker ones when it becomes clear they are dealing with an employee who knows how bargaining actually works) will say something like the union would never agree to cuts in current wages or benefits, so employees can only win.

The facts?  Bargaining is a two-way street and unions regularly agree to lesser pay, benefits or work conditions in a first contract.  Unions need a contract once they are voted in - no contract, no dues and the enormous investment in the organizing effort is lost.  Of course this always depends on the relative bargaining power of the parties, but most of the time - especially in today's tough market - unions have to agree to concessions to get that first contract.

Unions have institutional goals in contract negotiations (like dues checkoff and union security) the smart companies will only agree to in exchange for something else.  That something else is normally something that the employees currently enjoy or something the union promised they'd get during the organizing campaign.

Any former organizer (and even current organizers if they are "off the record") will tell you that as soon as an election is won the job becomes lowering expectations of the new members.  Why would that be true?  Because nobody would vote in a union if they thought they would pay dues for less pay and benefits.  Unions are also great at "spinning" concessions at the bargaining table.

The bottome line is that there is no such thing as a free lunch.  Negotiations are full of trade-offs from the two sides to the contract.  Some will benefit the union (notice I did not say the employees - the employees are not a party to the contract).  And some will benefit the company.  If that doesn't happen there won't be an agreement.

That's not to say that employees won't benefit at all under the new agreement.  The union has to get an agreement that benefits them and politically won't get them voted out of office (not an easy thing to do).  But the company has to get a contract they can live with.  If that happens there will be a contract - even if that agreement cuts some of the current pay, benefits or work conditions of employees.  If not.  No deal.

The Second Lie - Test Drive

Union organizers like to minimize the risk in the minds of the voter during an organizing campaign.  One of the ways they do this is by offering the "test drive."  They will tell employees to vote them in, try them out and if they don't get a contract they like they can just vote the union out in a year.  The best organizers actually dial this one up a notch and tell employees that if they don't bargain a contract that the employees approve that the union will just walk away without a vote.

The facts?  You just can't test drive a union.  As a legal matter, once a union is voted in it is in for as long as it wants unless employees take the affirmative step of decertifying the union.  While the union does have the power to walk away this rarely happens.  In fact, I've never seen it happen without a petition being filed.

Getting one of these petitions filed is not the easiest thing in the world.  First, the cards are stacked against them.  If a contract is entered you are barred from filing one for about 3 years.  Even then, there is only a 30 day period where you can file and it is not an easy process.

Then there are roadblocks the union will throw into the way of employees who try and get rid of them.  Let's put it this way: you're not exactly welcome down at the union hall if you start passing around a decertification petition.  Unions will do what ever they can to stop one from getting traction, including intimidation and harrasement of the people who support the effort.  It takes alot of guts to do it.  To many it's just not worth the hassle.

So can you "test drive" a union?  I suppose technically you can.  Realistically, however, once a union is in it is in.  The ball is completely in the union's court and the rules are stacked against you.  You should assume when you vote that if the union gets in it is in for good.

A great way to overcome this lie during a campaign is to show employees a copy of the union's constitution and bylaws - especially the section that talks about trials and fines.  Here there is usually language about encouraging secession or conduct unbecoming a member.

The Third Lie - You Are The Union

This one always sounds good during a campaign.  You will have a voice if you vote in a union - your opinion will count.  Who wouldn't vote for that?

Before voting on this promise it is a good idea to consider the mechanics of how your voice is heard in a union.  The only thing a union wins in an election is the right to speak on behalf of a group of employees for purposes of collective bargaining.  That's it.  So it is not accurate to say that you have a voice in the union.  In fact the opposite is true.

The facts?  You lose your individual voice the minute a union is voted in and give that voice to the union.  The union may listen to you, but legally it can do whatever it wants as your representative whether you agree with it or not.  So long as it meets its "duty of fair representation" (and the NLRB almost always says it does) the union - and here I mean the International or Local Union that is certified as the bargaining representative - can do whatever the heck it wants.

Employees who join the union do get an opportunity to vote on union leadership, and if enough people disagree with what the current leaders are doing you might get new leaders.  But again, it is their voice - not yours - that counts.

Organizers often tell you that you or your coworkers will actually sit at the bargaining table and negotiate your contract.  That does happen sometimes.  What they don't tell you is that the bargaining committee is almost always instructed to not comment at the table and to save discussions for "caucus" meetings away from the table.  The committe is told that this shows a "united font" at the table.  By the way, it is great advice.  But it does not give you a voice.

Even if you do get to speak at the table, don't have illusions about where the real voice lies.  Only the local union can approve a contract with your company (and in many cases even the local union has no power to do this - it has to be approved by the International).

To say you have a voice in the union is the same thing as saying you have a voice in American politics.  Technically you do have a voice - you get to vote on representatives and you might even help to get rid of one who you don't agree with.  But do you feel like you have any kind of day to day voice about what happens in Washington (or in your state and local government for that matter)?  This is the exact kind of voice you have in a union.

If you really want a voice at work you have three options.  You could start your own company - then you get a say in every decision.  If that isn't your thing, you could search out a company that already does a good job of listening to employee input (I'll give you this hint - they are almost never unionized).

However, the number one wat to be heard at work is to start speaking up.  Be constructive - if your input is ignored also think about whether the way you are presenting it is the problem.  But whatever you do, don't stop trying.  You may feel your suggestions are ignored.  If you can't handle it anymore, try one of the options above.  But I will tell you this.  If your employer isn't listening to its employees now, it's not going to start just because a union is voted in.

The Fourth Lie - Respect

Another common refrain in organizing campaigns is that the union will get you the respect you deserve.  The company will be forced to respect it's employees if they band together as a union.  It is a great way to rally the troops without actually having to promise anything.  "United we stand, divided we beg," the organizer will say.

It would be great if respect was that easy to gain.  We go around for years getting pooped on by our company until we have a vote one day and then - boom - we are respected.  Sounds appealing, huh?

The facts?  Most organizers who use this line want you to confuse fear with respect.  They are saying that if the union is voted in that the company will fear the union - or at least fear what the union might do - and treat employees with more respect.

Think about that organizer's formula.  The company will treat you better because it is scared of what the union might do.  This formula may have worked back in the day.  Unions used to be able to shut down entire industries on a whim - they did it too.  Violent strikes were not uncommon.

In that enviroment - especially if you were a monopoly and could afford to make concessions like in the automobile, steel or airline industry - you just rolled over and passed the cost on to your customer.  Then the world got flat.

Not to downplay the violence and intimidation that happened in the heyday of unions, but it turns out there are forces that are much more violent and intimidating to employers than any union.  Like competition from all corners of the world.

When you are struggling for survival, the threat of a strike or some bad PR doesn't really get your attention the way it might have in the past.  Look at Ford, GM and Chrysler for good current examples of this.  But there is a whole graveyard of companies - many of them unionized - that were squashed out of existence by the forces of the world market over the last 25 years.

Unions know this lesson better than anyone.  It turns out that the restrictive work rules and unwieldy bargaining and dispute resolution process common to most union contracts are uniquely effective ways to make an employer uncompetitive in today's marketplace.  Even with wage and benefit concessions, these companies get hammered when market conditions get tough.  They just aren't nimble enough to take on the world.

In todays flat economy the threats that worked decades ago are useless:  unions know that a struck company will find another way to get it's product to the costomers, replace striking workers or go out of business.  Either way the union loses a bunch of dues paying members.

Unions aren't feared by companies.  While it remains true that companies don't want a union anymore today than they did 20 years ago (maybe even less), that is not fear of what the union might do.  It is fear that their competitors will eat their lunch.

If a union was truely interested in earning the respect of a company it would help the company eliminate inefficiencies, develop new ways to work and help it open new markets.  It would work as a partner.  Unfortunately unions are stuck in the past, remembering the good-old days and only interested in slowing down change.  That is why they are going extinct.

The Fifth Lie - Company Fight Is Proof

This popular argument is a trick.  It uses the company's opposition as proof that the union would benefit employees.  It puts the unions in the same catagory as drugs and cigarettes when you were a kid - that stuff you weren't supposed to do but everybody did anyway.  The logic goes that the only reason parents opposed those things was because they were fun - thus the parent's opposition proved that it was a risk worth taking.

The bad news for the union (and unfortunately for many teenagers) is that sometimes the "parents" are right.  Drugs, cigarettes and unions can all be bad for you - and those who oppose them may actually be looking out for your best interest.

The facts?  Companies don't oppose unions because they fear the union will negotiate big wages and benefit increases.  This is a silly argument, because that is totally in the company's control.  I guess the union might convince employees that they can trick the company into making improvements that it otherwise wouldn't agree to.  But long term do you really want to work for a company that is that stupid?

The reasons companies oppose union has nothing to do with what they think employees will get.  Companies know that so long as they are patient and firm in their resolve they can pretty much negotiate whatever they want into a contract.  However, they also know that once a union is voted in they lose their ability to make quick adjustments to market conditions.

Here is the problem.  The bargaining process is adversarial and can take months even years.  During that time the company is effectively stuck doing things the way it has always done them in the past.  In today's economy waiting months or a year to implement a change that your non-union competitors can implement immediately can mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy.

Customers also know this about unionized companies - many actually ask their unionized venders to alert them several months in advance of contract negotiations.  Because their is a risk of supply disruptions during contract negotiations, many customers will look for alternate suppliers around this time.  This is never a good thing.

This is why companies fight unions so vigorously.  Studies suggest that the "dead-weight" loss of a union on an organization is around 20% of the companies overall productivity and profitability.  This is not because of wage and benefit increases.  Today the gap between union and non-union employees is shrinking, and if you control for regional and industry differences in many cases there is no gap at all.

The Sixth Lie - Protection

This is one of the main ploys used by organizers: creating fear of the employer in the minds of the voters.  I've seen organizers get employees in a frenzy over job security in companies that never fired employees for anything other than attendance.  Creating fear in the minds of the employees is the quickest way for an organizer to build support among employees.

The facts?  In most companies today employees are only terminated after a series of write-ups or other progressive discipline.  Our employment law landscape is quite different than it was even 10 years ago - employers walk on eggshells whenever they have to fire an employee.

The reason for all this caution is the enormous number of employment laws we have in place today.  There are more than 10 different "protected classes" today (when you add up state and sometimes even municipal requirements there can be more than 20).  Then plaintiffs attorneys have discovered a way to prove "reverse discrimination" which is a cause of action available to anyone who isn't in a protected class - in other words anyone can sue for anything.

While union organizers like to focus attention on things like "at will" status and "open door" policies (telling workers that it really is just an open door onto the street), the truth is much different.  An employer who fires someone without a solid case - including documents and proof that the decision is consistent with prior actions and standing company rules - is just asking for trouble.

So employers take care when terminating employees.  What about unionized employees - do they have it any better.  Turns out the answer is no.

While most union employees are covered by a grievance and arbitration procedure, they also give up their right to speak for themselves or process their own case.  This means that politics can often decide cases instead of merits.

There are thousands of union members each year who accuse their unions of unfairly representing them in the grievance process.  It turns out that unions don't do that great of a job protecting their own members.  You can this to employees by showing them copies of the unfair labor practice charges filed against the union.

In addition, unions can also negatively impact a company in other ways which also threatens job security.  Being laid off by a struggling company doesn't feel a whole lot better than getting fired - either way your looking for another job.

The Seventh Lie - Union Employees Have It Better

This is the last of their 7 lies.  It is the glue that holds all the other lies together.  Union employees are just alot better off than everyone else.

There is alot to like about this argument if you are a union organizer.  The first is that if you aren't very curious about government statistics - and really, who is - it actually looks like this argument is true.

Each year when unions are forced to explain how they manged to lose even more union members over the last year they always will point people to the Bureau of Labor Statistics information on union wage rates.  They will then tell you that these statistics prove that union members make about 30% more than non-union members across the country.

You read that right.  Thirty percent.

Surely if this were true then people would be lining up at union halls around the country trying to get a union into their workplace, right?  Of course the answer can be found in that age-old saying there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

The annual BLS statistics aren't very good.  First, they do not count for regional differences.  It turns out union members congregate mainly  in large metropolitan areas, especially on the two coasts.  Turns out that these same areas are also where it is most expensive to live and wage rates tend to be higher in these areas.

In addition, the statistics that unions like to quote just lump everyone together, which then assumes that union membership is distrubuted across job classifications.  Turns out that also isn't true.  So, you end up comparing unionized NFL and NBA players with non-union McDonald's and Wal-Mart workers.

If you try to compare apples to apples (which is impossible using the BLS data set) the union premium tends to shrink.  In many industries there is no gap at all - in some the non-union employees make more.

People aren't stupid.  The reason why non-union employees aren;t lining up to join unions is not because this union premium is a big secret, or that employers have some kind of mind control over their employees.  It's because they know by observing with their own eyes that the statistics just aren't true.  Some companies pay more than others.  Some have better benefits.  Some layoff half their workforce during the slow time of the year.  Some work overtime non-stop.

The bottom line is having a union does not make life better.  In most of the important, day-to-day ways it makes life worse.  It adds another layer of bureaucracy and politics to your work life.  It adds additional cost and rules.  It can hurt the competivenessof a company, making it more vulnerable to market forces.

Many in the unions have demonstrated a level of arrogance and even greed.

No king on earth is as safe in his job as a Union official. There is only one thing that can get him sacked; and that is drink. Not even that, as long as he doesn't actually fall down.

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
We continue to negotiate, and we continue to be hopeful. However, the negotiating process is a two-way street and the unions have not been willing to approve a contract that would allow the company to remain competitive.

I did not write this one myself but agree with much of this post. If anyone knows who wrote this please do let me know so I can credit them?

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