Union Impressions: Rules vs. Work

All of the discussion in the Catholic blogosphere, and the wider public square, about unions (and public employee unions in particular) has given me cause to think a bit about my attitude towards organized labor. There are a lot of rational political, economic and moral reasons I can give for why I don’t like labor unions as they exist in the US, but as is so often the case with deeply held opinions, my most basic reaction to unions has a lot to do with my personal experiences relation to work and to unions. As such, it seemed like a good way to address the issue is through the lens of the experiences which have helped shape my opinion of unionization.

1. Most of my exposure to unions was through my father, who held a staff position at a community college for twenty-five years, retiring just a month before losing a multi-year battle with cancer. (In a state college, the major divide is between staff — which includes basically everyone who is neither an instructor nor a manager — and faculty, who are the actual instructors. Since he only had a bachelor’s degree, Dad’s position was classified as staff, and staff positions were represented by a state school employees union which is a member of the AFL-CIO.) The college was not unionized when Dad got his job, but it became a union shop half-way through his time there, via an election which he always wondered about the validity of. (Union members and non-union members were given different colored ballots, so it certainly would have been easy to cheat if someone had wanted to.) Not only were the union’s politics diametrically opposed to my father’s (he always used their “state issues” political mailing to decide how not to vote) but the union supported people for the college board of directors who hired a college president who eventually drove the college into the financial ditch, resulting in constant fear and occasional layoffs. His more daily frustration, however, was the effect of the union’s vigorous protection of people who did not do their jobs well.

Key among these was the department secretary, who was supposed to support his department as well as another one. She was unquestionably a sweet and kind lady (and a loyal and enthusiastic union member) but she steadfastly refused to learn how to use a computer for anything other than her hour of reading the LA Times in her office every morning over coffee. She diligently went to the campus mail room, and occasionally did xeroxing, but the work of typing and formatting department schedules, announcements, tests, maintaining the mailing list — in short, anything she could not do well with her electric typewriter and file drawers — she simply insisted she could not do. The department could not get funding for another secretary, for the fairly logical reason that they already had her. And when attempts were made to pressure her to actually do her work, she successfully filed union grievances to the effect that she was being given a hostile work environment and unrealistic expectations.

So since Dad was the other person in the department who was staff rather than faculty, and because he wanted to see the department running successfully, most of the work the secretary should have been doing devolved on him. And since he already had a full work load running the planetarium, much of that work ended up happening on nights and weekend. (Unpaid, of course.)

Now, it’s certainly true that if Dad too had filed union grievances, the union would have been happy to insist that he didn’t have to do the department admin work either. But what they had no interest in was actually seeing that someone did do the work — that things got done and the department functioned smoothly. Their job was the protect the person who wasn’t doing the work, not to make sure the work got done. And so, since Dad cared about things working well, he got stuck with the extra work.

These other examples are briefer and much more minor, but this theme of caring about rules and rights over work continues.

2. As a teenager, when I was completing my Eagle Project for the Boy Scouts, I had to go down to a Park Service office in order to make a number of trail signs. The first task was to take a notebook full of text which had been approved by the naturalist who had planned the trail I was organizing the building of, and turn that text into a series of signs. There was an engraving machine that cut the text into sheets of plastic, which could then be mounted on poles, but my task was entirely non-mechanical: sitting at a computer and typing all of the text into a computer program which would then run the engraver. I showed up at 9:00 AM when the office opened, and one of the park rangers showed me into an office where the computer was and went off to do other things. And hour and a half later, he stuck his head in and announced, “Smoke break.”

“I don’t smoke,” I said. “I’ll just keep going.” I hadn’t seen anyone for the last hour-and-a-half, so it hardly seemed to matter if people were on break or not, and I wanted to get done so I could move on to the next thing.

“We fought for these breaks, everyone takes them,” announced the ranger. “Come on. If you don’t smoke, you can just sit around.”

So I obediently went outside and sat around while one of two of the rangers smoked, and the rest stood around outside the building. After fifteen minutes, I was told we could go back in, and I returned to work.) An hour and a half later, I was called out for another smoke break. About an hour after that I was finished and told the rangers I had the file ready to go to the engraver. They looked at the clock.

“Well, it’s only fifteen minutes till lunch, and the engraver will take longer to run than that. How about you wait till after lunch before we start the run.”

So I waited. Breaks are sacred, it seems.

3. Early married life found MrsDarwin and I back in California, where she, with her fresh theater degree, was trying to get backstage work at a theater. MrsDarwin found an internship at a regional theater for the summer season (one of their plays, perhaps appropriately, was a revival of a 1930s piece of union propaganda called “Cradle will Rock”). The union which deals with theater jobs is called Equity, and like all unions they look after their own. Members of Equity have to be paid a certain amount per hour. A theater which is an Equity house can hire non-equity people, but they have to be unpaid interns (often, as in this case, paid a little under the table via audience tips or money from the director’s pocket.)

But what struck me even more than the irony of an entity supposedly around to ensure just wages mandating that other workers not be paid was the rigidity of union rules. I recall one night when I was hanging around, waiting to watch the show from the light booth, and MrsDarwin was bustling around stage to re-set after the rehearsal and before the show.

“Hey, are you going backstage?” she asked an actor who was ambling by.

“Yes.”

“Do you mind taking your prop” (it was on the stage right next to him) “back to the props table while you’re going by.”

“Can’t. Equity rules.”

(MrsDarwin would like the record to show that being new at the time, and not knowing all the Equity rules, she hadn’t realized that actors are, by contract, not supposed to move props or scenery under any conditions. Coming from college and amateur theater where everyone works together on everything, this hadn’t occurred to her. — Myself, however, I’ve never been in a work environment where it would be unreasonable to ask someone to drop something off somewhere where he was going anyway. I thought he came off seeming like a total jerk.)


The theme which all of these (and many other anecdotes and experiences I’ve heard from others) seem to me to underline is one of putting rules above desire to actually see things get done and done right. My approach to work (probably learned from my father, as the first anecdote illustrates) has always been that everyone should pitch in out of a desire to see things get done and come out right. This has led me to usually be the one who’s willing to stay late, to take on extra tasks outside my normal responsibilities, and to volunteer to learn new skills. It’s a tendency that’s served me well. Sure, it sometimes means giving your boss more than he’s paying for — for a while. But it also allows you to build skills and experience for free. This approach to learning on the job and expanding my skills is a lot of what I credit by career advancement over the last ten years to, and it’s served me very well.

 

But more than that, at some deep and emotional level, if I’m going to put the work in to do something, I always want to see it done right. It’s never just a, “They pay me to be here for a set number of hours with the clock punched, and after that, who cares,” kind of thing. And so the idea of bargaining so that you can do less, or protecting workers who don’t work, just feels very wrong to me. I won’t work because I want to follow set rules and never be asked to do anything beyond those. I work for a paycheck, yes, but I also work for the satisfaction of seeing things done. And that always seems to mean thinking like an owner — not thinking like a union member.

40 Responses to Union Impressions: Rules vs. Work

  • What you said seems to be true from my experience as well: unions put an emphasis on rules (though I’d add ‘benefits’ too) and not on getting work done and done right. In my opinion, somewhere along the time-line of unions, they lost their purpose.
    But if it weren’t for unions, my father wouldn’t have had a job to support me and my 5 siblings: he worked as a negotiator between a union (for the FAA workers) and the government–a good one at that, apparently: no workers strikes in his almost 30 years with the FAA.

    I’m still undecided on the whole issue, but I do believe one thing for sure: that is that unions should not be allowed to donate to campaigns when using federal or local monies (ie only allowed to donate what union members volunteer to give).

  • Several years ago I spoke against the IBEW at an open meeting. I was pleased not to have been beaten up or my car torched, but the threats were real. The IBEW and their stooges, including the local newspaper, accused me of belonging to a union myself, which I don’t How ironic later to be accused by fellow Catholics of being a union member also because I am a (gasp) public-school teacher (happily, in a non-union state). Unions are objectively evil, but let us all be sure that we don’t believe everything we hear on the radio and read on the ‘net, and in so doing accuse people falsely.

  • I for one object to the notion that Unions are objectively evil. Some things that some Unions do might be objectively evil, but often the situation very much depends upon which side you view the issue.

    Lets take a closer look at the rules. My Dad was a union member for years, and many of those rules had very good reasons behind them. For example, in the warehouses he worked at, jobs were assigned by seniority. This served two purposes, it prevented the supervisors from assigning people based on favoritism (not ability to do the job, but rather based on friendship or other factors unrelated to work itself), it also gave guys who had worked very hard for a company for 20-30 years a chance to do easier jobs when their bodies were no longer able to do the hardest jobs, but they were not yet ready for retirement. Other rules, like mandatory breaks were instituted because companies use to make workers work non-stop for hours, sometimes without so much as a bathroom break.

    Now lets look at the way Unions fight for fired workers. This may come as a shock to you, but sometimes companies, or at least managers fire people for unjust reasons. I know I have been fired unjustly at least twice in my career. The first time was so a manager could hire a friend to fill my position (though he lied about the reason he fired me to his superiors) and the second time was because I disagreed with my manager about a technical issue (I am an engineer, she wasn’t and I told her her method of solving a technical issue was wrong). In both cases, had I been a Union employee, I am confident I would not have lost my job. My Dad had been a shop steward, and I know how they approached workers who were fired. A company had to document particular failings if it was going to fire a worker (failure to do their job, chronic lateness, etc.). It prevented many arbitrary firings that had less to do with job performance and more to do with bad tempers.

    Unions are an essential method in a capitalist society of balancing the scale between employers and employees. People may complain about unions these days, but how many of them would want to work in the conditions that Americans worked in in the 19th century, or that third world workers work in to this very day? Either hour days, five day weeks, breaks, child labor laws were all passed at least in part because of strong union support. If the have over reached in the present, that signals a need for reform, not elimination.

  • Your experiences with unions are entirely yours. Let me counter with some experiences in Texas – a right-to-work state – as an unemployment insurance judge. I used to do many hearings with Wal – Mart, which hires people part-time, schedules them for 60-hour-weeks for three weeks out of the month and then no time for the fourth week, so the employees don’t get paid overtime and don’t qualify for full-time benefits, but also so that the employees can’t claim for unemployment for that off-week. HEB does the same thing. Under Texas law, that’s perfectly legal. Wal-mart pays huge amounts of money to lawyers and lobbyists to keep its workplaces free of unions and organizers, to preserve its right to pay coolie wages and impose ridiculous work rules.

  • “If the have over reached in the present, that signals a need for reform, not elimination.”

    That’s difficult when the unions and their supporters treat EVERY effort at reform as tantamount to elimination. (See, e.g., Wisconsin and Ohio.)

  • “Your experiences with unions are entirely yours.”

    Yeah, no one else has ever had the same types of experiences with regard to unions.

  • A friend of mine at a Big Ten Campus had to fight for five years to fire a union subordinate who had an unexplained 50% absentee rate. Union reps seemed to think it was their sole responsibility to drag the matter out as long as possible, and had no concern that their member was being paid money to perform a job she obviously had no interest in performing.

  • If you believe that unions are “objectively evil” and need to be abolished because of the numerous abuses of union power we see today, then perhaps you should call for marriage and childbearing to be outlawed as well because of the numerous cases of domestic violence, child abuse, adultery, etc. we see today. Or perhaps police should be abolished because of police brutality. Or maybe the priesthood should be abolished because of… you get the picture. Abuse, no matter how widespread, does not negate proper use.

    Still, it is obvious that unions are in urgent need of radical reform, and that most unions in the U.S. do NOT fit the mold envisioned in Catholic social teaching. The most radical and needed reform IMO would be making union membership voluntary. Also it is not out of line to question whether unions really need to exist in the public sector where taxpayers fund the pay and benefits they receive.

    I do not have any personal experience of belonging to a union, and neither did anyone in my family with the exception of my grandfather who was a steel mill worker through the Depression, World War II and into the 50s. His union had to fight pretty hard for every benefit they got, and they inevitably went on strike every 3 years when their contract expired. My grandfather hated being on strike, especially when the strikes dragged on long enough that it began to hurt his family financially. Their last strike, just before he retired, lasted more than 6 months.

    My grandfather, who died when I was in my late teens, never had anything good to say about unions when the topic came up. However, in his last and longest strike one of the concessions the union got from the company was a much improved pension plan. That pension enabled my grandparents to live reasonably well for the remaining 25 years of their lives. Since they themselves lived simply, they even were able to set aside money to help me and my brother pay for our college education. So he did at least get some kind of compensation in the end for all the strikes he had to endure.

    As with anything else run by fallen human beings, unions have their advantages and disadvantages.

  • Mack Hall,

    One could say that many unions at this time support objectively evil things — but I don’t think it’s at all possible to say that unions “are” objectively evil. Indeed, it’s hard for me to see how any organization could be objectively evil in and of itself. Organizations just are — and I certainly have no objection to an organization consisting of workers forming to give workers a voice. I do tend thing that the union regulations we have here in the US probably create some bad incentives for both employers and employees. But I don’t think that unions per se are evil or even are by their natures bad or unhelpful, I just think that in our current economy and polity their incentives drive them to look out for bad workers over good ones.

    Not to join the (justifiable) pile on, I just figure as the author of the post I need to be clear on this.

    Maryland Bill,

    I can see that seniority rules would sometimes have benefits, but at the same time, when rigidly enforced, they can have some serious downsides. For instance, one of the stories that the GOP was pointing to in Wisconsin was how a young teacher voted “Teacher of the Year” for outstanding work was laid off the next year because there were budget cuts in the school district and the union insisted that the teachers with the least experience go first. Now, one could argue that that teacher will do much better finding a new job than someone with twenty three years of tenure who’s just punching the clock, but it hardly seems just or desireable for the work of the school that people be laid off completely irrespective of merit.

    On the flip side, I do know of instances where (especially because a union shop often results in a company effectively outsourcing their HR work to the union) unions have done good work on behalf of people fired unjustly. For instance, I recall a friend of my in-laws who was a UPS drive who was fired because in deep snow he failed to see a curb while backing out of a drive way and drove over it with his truck, accidentally crushing an ornamental nick-nack the homeowner had out by the mailbox. The homeowner complained and UPS, having a “zero tolerance” policy terminated him without questions despite his having worked there more than a decade with no prior complaints. The union got him re-instated, and I would consider that a good thing.

    However, on balance, it seems to me that unions bring more of a bad attitude to the workplace than a good one.

    Karen,

    Well, everyone’s experiences are theirs, that’s a bit of a tautology, isn’t it.

    I certainly don’t think that employers never behave badly. I know people who have been unjustly fired (in Texas, no less, where I lived and worked for seven years), though in my experience it was always in companies too small to be unionized anyway.

    At the same time, I’d submit that if your full time job is dealing with situations where people are disputing whether they’ve been justly fired, that’s going to give you a highly biased set of experiences since you’ll invariably deal with a lot of bad situations. It’s like the issue with police starting to stereotype because they deal with so many people of a certain look and background who really are criminals.

    Trust me, though, there are equally bad sets of experiences which people dealing with unions can point to. There was, for instance, an admin who was terminated for never doing any work. The administration tried to fire him, but the union had him re-instated claiming there wasn’t sufficient proof. The department was so frustrated that they spent six months gathering a dossier of proof that the guy wasn’t doing his job. At that point the union reps insisted this proved that the department had a personal vendetta against him and had him reinstated again.

    Nor is this entirely the union’s fault, because according to current labor law the union is supposed to do this. Indeed, if they fail to pull every trick to protect a bad employee, the employee can sue them for failure to represent.

    Thus, naturally, in a situation where the management is not actively stupid and malevolent (which at least in my experience seems to be most places most of the time — bosses are much like workers, most of them are just trying to do their jobs well even if they aren’t particularly good at it) unions end up benefiting bad workers much more than good ones. After all, the employers want the good ones, and thus “protecting” them isn’t a huge help. The bad ones, on the other hand, need protection.

  • to preserve its right to pay coolie wages and impose ridiculous work rules.

    Stop it. Wal-Mart’s employees are not imported from India with contracts of indenture. The wages they pay are market wages.

    _____

    Re Maryland Bill’s story v. Darwin’s & c.:

    One should note that while both are describing service enterprises, two different eras are concerned, one is a private and one is a public employer, and one is an essentially masculine milieux where the brawn of the employees is salient and one is a more generic milieux. One might suggest that Wagner Act unionism was a response to defaults in industrial relations characteristic of one type of setting and not manifest in other settings, and that the extension of practices adapted to constructions sites, factories, and warehouses to clerical offices (public and private) was an error.

  • I know people who have been unjustly fired (in Texas, no less, where I lived and worked for seven years), though in my experience it was always in companies too small to be unionized anyway.

    I suppose I could be one of those people Darwin speaks of, though I don’t know if he recalls the conditions in which I lost my job in Texas. Suffice it to say, applying a normal distribution (a.k.a the bell curve) to a particular group’s performance reviews isn’t necessarily the best way of assessing your team’s talent and subsequently making job cuts based upon that data, especially when your sample size is a mere 8 people. I was that guy and was let go despite the protests of my remaining team. I suppose the logic was to either trim the fat or cull the herd (I don’t begrudge my former employer that right, it helps them in their goal of profitability.) It seems HR departments would benefit from a staff member being a mathematician or statistician to let this people know bell curves tend to be a more accurate model when your sample size is larger rather than smaller.

    Interestingly, this incident ended up starting a chain reaction which ended in me uprooting my family to a non-right-to-work state, with a new (and better!) job. Even more interestingly, the place is a union shop with unionized engineering staff too (which is where I am). We are private sector. My status with this engineering union is that of a Beck objector (basically, I pay an agency fee, which I also object to, rather than full dues and have no voting rights).

    While I have thrived in this environment, I believe it’s more due to the people around me (management & team members) rather than the legalities regarding unions. With that in mind, you could probably guess that I’d much prefer that my current home was a right-to-work state. More often than not, the management that I have encountered (at many different levels) are good people trying to get the job done. I’ve encountered a couple of pricks, similar to what I experienced in my previous gig. Yet when contract negotiations come up, the rhetoric (at least from the unions) tends towards class warfare and is needlessly adversarial in nature. It becomes us (good, little guys) versus them (bad fat cats), when in fact it should be that we are all on the same team. I consider it a privilege to work in this field, as do a great many other people around here.

    My biggest complaint about the negotiations around here, is that the benefits packages are heads and shoulders above what other companies offer. And the union leadership and others don’t seem to realize just how good we have things. I fear they try to bite the hand that feeds them way too often. It’s ungrateful, really. One of my friends at church also works for the same employer, but in a fairly high position in HR. We’ve spoken about things of this nature, and he’s mentioned the ruthless nature of these negotiations. In fact, he’s been responsible for some aspects of these compensation packages in the past, only to have the union spit on what he considered a just and generous compensation package. (By just, I mean that he tries to practically apply CST.)

    I’ve also heard other stories similar to those related in this post.

  • “to preserve its right to pay coolie wages and impose ridiculous work rules.”

    Stop it. Wal-Mart’s employees are not imported from India with contracts of indenture. The wages they pay are market wages.

    Heh. I’ve never quite understood why WalMart is the “evil empire” to people in ways that Target and other similar stores aren’t. I don’t personally enjoy shopping at WalMart (and so stopped once I could afford to) but it’s reputation for being evil is outsized for sure. Indeed, in an amusingly “bootleggers and baptists” situation, WalMart has lobbied to raise the minimum wage. (Not because they’re all full of rainbows and butterflies, but because they can afford the hit better than their competitors and so forcing all low wage employers to increase wages a bit would help them more than hurt them.)

    One might suggest that Wagner Act unionism was a response to defaults in industrial relations characteristic of one type of setting and not manifest in other settings, and that the extension of practices adapted to constructions sites, factories, and warehouses to clerical offices (public and private) was an error.

    I would agree with that. I think unions are best suited to addressing situations where there is a lot of fairly undifferentiated labor that employers can easily take advantage of because of plentiful supply. With more skilled labor, it becomes much more of a racket.

  • The college was not unionized when Dad got his job, but it became a union shop half-way through his time there, via an election which he always wondered about the validity of. (Union members and non-union members were given different colored ballots, so it certainly would have been easy to cheat if someone had wanted to.)

    I hate to suggest your departed father may not have had his story right, but this makes no sense. If it was an election to create a union, then at the time of the election, no one was a union member. What I suspect your Dad misunderstood is that, by law, separate elections must be held for “professionals” and “non-professionals” unless the pros vote to be in the same unit as the non-pros. I imagine this is what was happening and I think you might want to consider his objectivity on other matters he related to you.

    Nevertheless, bosses to not share the grace given to the Blessed Mother of being without sin. Nor do workers. Having a system of due process and representation serves the common good. We can all find a few stories of the worst abuses (be they verifiable or not). But I am willing to bet that if I blindly grabbed the case load of any one of my stewards, a review of the cases might not convince my conservative friends here that the union is right every time, but I think they would be very embarrassed to defend management on most of the cases and to defend the proposition that in this workplace, justice would be served by the workers not having a negotiated grievence process.

  • I imagine this is what was happening and I think you might want to consider his objectivity on other matters he related to you.

    Yeah, I’m way not buying the poisoning the well approach, Kurt. I’m willing to qualify the point about the election (though I heard it from two different staffers as well as my dad, it was many years after the fact) but that was exactly what it was, a parenthetical. I don’t consider it remotely central to what I was relating.

    Issues such as the union defense of the department secretary I know personally from multiple sources — in part because once I was a teenager I got under-the-table work from various instructors doing her work for her on a cash basis since she didn’t do much herself. As I say, a sweet lady. But unfortunately, she just didn’t do the job.

    Having a system of due process and representation serves the common good.

    I agree, and I strongly encourage a company to have an HR department. That is no reason for the kind of idiotic lengths that unions are willing to go to in order to protect people who don’t do their jobs. For instance, it’s pretty telling when even the NY Times has done a whole series on the idiocies inflicted on their school system by the teachers unions.

    But I am willing to bet that if I blindly grabbed the case load of any one of my stewards, a review of the cases might not convince my conservative friends here that the union is right every time, but I think they would be very embarrassed to defend management on most of the cases and to defend the proposition that in this workplace, justice would be served by the workers not having a negotiated grievence process.

    Perhaps, but workplaces that you’re called into are, of necessity, workplaces that have already been turned into adversarial environments by the fact that they are unionized. And as I pointed out to Karen above — your files are, of their nature, going to be full of grievances. They’re not going to be full of how much more inefficient and hostile to getting work done your union has made the workplace for us workers who just want to get work done.

    I don’t expect you to agree with my impressions — speaking of lacking objectivity, it’s quite obvious that you have a political, professional and financial interest in not doing so. But I would advise that rather than going around suggesting that people who disagree with you on whether unions actually serve the common good as they exist and operate in the US are under the illusion that management is immaculately conceived (which is a pretty offensive notion for you to impute to others) it might well be that most of us have been put off by precisely the kind of experiences I and others have related here.

  • There is plenty of undifferentiated labor in clerical offices and (if anything) a lower aggregate skill level than you would find on a shopfloor. My suggestion was that there was a different set of social dynamics at work. One possibility is that clerical work does not lend itself as readily to production metrics. Another is that the back-and-forth between a female workforce and management tends to have a different resultant than that between a male workforce and management. A third might be that there is a greater sense of psychological distance between management and production workers than there is between management and clerical workers.

  • Here’s what due process for union workers means: LA having to spend $3.5 million to try to fire 7 horrible teachers. http://www.laweekly.com/content/printVersion/854792/

    Surely there’s a better way than this?

  • More union due process:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/nyregion/13homes.html?_r=3&sq=at%20state-run&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=all

    The state initiated termination proceedings in 129 of the cases reviewed but succeeded in just 30 of them, in large part because the workers’ union, the Civil Service Employees Association, aggressively resisted firings in almost every case. A few employees resigned, even though the state sought only suspensions.

    In the remainder of the cases, employees accused of abuse — whether beating the disabled, using racial slurs or neglecting their care — either were suspended, were fined or had their vacation time reduced.

  • Full disclosure: I am currently a public school teacher in Louisiana. For 5-1/2 years (2001-2006) I was a UniServ Director for the Louisiana Association of Educators. Louisiana is a right-to-work state. I am not currently a member of the union … er, professional association.

    With that in mind, I’d like to offer some perspective “from the inside”, so to speak.

    As a UniServ Director, it was my job to defend the legal rights and privileges of our members; lobby for more rights/privileges/increased compensation; inform/provide professional development opportunities; and – above all – recruit more members.

    I joined the union as a new teacher because I saw it as a way to provide myself some legal protection and because I believed – and still do believe – that workers have the right to organize for their benefit.

    I got the job quite by accident, as I was not active *at all* in the union. During my time, I saw a fair share of abuses on both sides – the teachers and the “management” (principals/superintendents/school boards).

    I ultimately quit because – through the grace of God – I found myself escorting NEA President Reg Weaver around South Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. It was just the two of us. I asked him some hard questions about the funding of immoral groups by using dues money, not PAC money. He confirmed by suspicion, and I knew that I could no longer pretend that the NEA was a morally legitimate organization.

    By the grace of God, I was re-hired by my old school district, at my old high school, just 1/2-mile from home. I will not pay dues to NEA again.

    Nevertheless, I think that I was able to do some good work. I did certainly protect employees who were being railroaded because of personal reasons.

    Did I help to make it difficult to fire a bad employee? Maybe. But, if a principal did his work, then the employee was reprimanded, suspended, or terminated. However, such action was based on demonstrable evidence; not some “subjective” feeling.

    Tenure – at least in Louisiana – does not prohibit bad teachers from being fired. All tenure does is give due process to the employee, allowing him to explain his side of the story to the body that makes the decisions – the school board. Otherwise, the school board only hears from the administration, which obviously wants the firing.

    I wish that the muckety-mucks who run the National Education Association would simply stick to education issues. But, they won’t. So, they lose members.

  • Issues such as the union defense of the department secretary I know personally from multiple sources

    Okay, let’ take that one. I’ve had more than my share of discussions with union and non-union workers who wanted my advice on how they could sue (non-union) or grieve (union) “because my boss was unfair to me.” Which, of course, my response is “okay, he was unfair. Did he violate any law (non-union)/article of the contract (union). I have no idea of the provisions of the contract this secretary was operating under, but I can’t imagine on what basis a grievence would have been filed under. Can you give me some guidence on this?

    Perhaps, but workplaces that you’re called into are, of necessity, workplaces that have already been turned into adversarial environments

    Your claim is that prior to the labor movement, America’s factories, mines and mills were models of non-adversarial environments, polluted by the advent of unions?

    I strongly encourage a company to have an HR department

    And when your advice to have an HR department that has a system of due process that serves the common good is not followed?

  • I’ve had more than my share of discussions with union and non-union workers who wanted my advice on how they could sue (non-union) or grieve (union) “because my boss was unfair to me.” Which, of course, my response is “okay, he was unfair. Did he violate any law (non-union)/article of the contract (union). I have no idea of the provisions of the contract this secretary was operating under, but I can’t imagine on what basis a grievence would have been filed under. Can you give me some guidence on this?

    From your equivalence of “grieving” with suing, I’m wondering if I am, perhaps, inadvertently using some sort of technical union terminology without meaning to. There wasn’t an attempt to seek damages or anything. What did happen, in more detail, was as follows:

    The secretary (let’s call her Kathy) had a full time secretarial job which was split between the cost centers of two departments, so she worked for Earth Science in the mornings and Psychology in the afternoons. During the course of the ’90s, as the college became increasingly computerized, the departments started asking Kathy to do things on the computers rather than via her trusty typewriter. Kathy was in her early 50s (making her the same age as most of the instructors in Earth Science, perhaps five years older than my dad) and found computers deeply mystifying. She went to various training classes provided by the college, but could never seem to retain anything even about very basic things like putting together fliers in Word or keeping an address list in Excel. Whenever one of these kind of tasks came up, she would ask for help (typically from my dad, since after the department got moved into smaller quarters they shared and office, later often from me, since when I was hanging around between classes I had more time on my hands than Dad did) and it would take a very, very long time, unless you simply did it for her.

    Thus, things she was asked to do on computer (and increasingly, you couldn’t do the things wanted with a typewriter instead) they wouldn’t get done on time, and other tasks would pile up and get delayed as well. Things got worse and worse in both departments, with other people having to pick up the slack even though it was outside their jobs descriptions, and eventually Psychology (being a larger and more anal department) eventually threatened to discipline her and have her terminated if she couldn’t get it together and get her work done.

    Kathy went to the union, saying that it wasn’t a matter of her not doing work that but the departments were asking for more and more work, and that they were trying to force her to do more work than was possible during her hours, and then disciplining her — thus creating a hostile environment. (Arguably, this was true from her point of view, since it took her four hours to type up on a computer what she could type on a typewriter in an hour — she just couldn’t learn how to format documents on a computer, how to name files so she could find them again, etc.)

    The union investigated and took the position that they were indeed violating her contract by trying to force her to do more work than was possible during her hours. The departments needed to back off and stop attempting to get extra hours out of her (or disciplining her for not doing unrealistic amounts of work) or else the union would have to take action.

    So the departments couldn’t discipline or fire her for not doing the work that was needed — given that state run colleges are very, very heavy on due process for getting rid of anyone.

    They could have declared that her work wasn’t needed, and laid her off, but then they wouldn’t have been able to hire a replacement. (If it looked clear that they’d claimed she was excess, got rid of her, and then immediately hired a replacement, that would clearly have been actionable.) They could also have attempted in pass her off to another department, but clearly this was hard to do since other departments didn’t want someone who couldn’t do the work. The union’s advice was to hire an additional secretary, since there was clearly so much work to do, but state budgets being what they are, that was never an option. So the solution for the following decade until she retired was to have her do the work she like (walking to the mail room twice a day, xeroxing, etc.) and put scheduling, fliers, mailing lists and such in the hands of someone who could do the work — usually dad, since he was the only other classified (staff rather than faculty) employee in the department, cared about whether or not things worked well, and shared an office with the secretary.

    And as I said earlier: It goes without saying that the union would have been very happy to support Dad in insisting that he didn’t have to do the work either.

    But that’s where the union mentality bugs me. I find it virtually impossible to think in terms of, “Look, it doesn’t matter whether things get done or get done right — I’ll do my hours and that’s it.” What seems to me important about work is that it be done — regardless of how long it takes. (Which can mean working late for no extra pay, or that if you get done early you should be able to walk without taking a hit on your paycheck.)

    It’s the sort of attitude it seems to me should be brought to any job — but watching how things played out at the college convinced me it was not how things worked there in a unionized environment. Which is one of the reasons I was determined to head into a non-unionized industry.

    Your claim is that prior to the labor movement, America’s factories, mines and mills were models of non-adversarial environments, polluted by the advent of unions?

    Clearly not. The spur to create unions was that in many cases employees were being treated badly by owners or managers.

    However, unions, like any other organization, become self justifying in their need for existence. And in any work environment, half the workers are going to be below average. So there’s always going to be a natural constituency for an organization which promises to protect workers as a whole and to “fight for” higher wages and benefits.

    And when your advice to have an HR department that has a system of due process that serves the common good is not followed?

    Leave and work for another company. I think companies that mistreat their workers deserve to go bankrupt. (Or else they’ll catch on suddenly that they can’t retain good talent and they’ll mend their ways. Either way, better for everyone.)

  • Leave and work for another company.

    Bingo. The mobility of the workforce is much greater than was the case eighty years ago.

  • Well, and FWIW, it seems to me that one of the things that a fraternal organization of workers could potentially be good at in the modern economy would be making labor mobility easier by providing a non-employer source of benefits.

    Blue-skying here: Say it was required that companies offer an either/or option on benefits like health insurance and 401k matching: either you can get the benefit through the company, or the company can make a transfer payment to a worker’s association you belong to where you participate in a transferable health care plan and retirement savings account.

    It would also be interesting if membership in a worker’s association actually denoted better than average accountability and performance — say if such a group provided certifications or ratings that were actually useful to employers in finding the best candidates to fill jobs.

    On the other hand, it seems like the difficulty is that given a democratic structure to a worker’s association, it would naturally tend towards non-performance-based approaches to rank and pay. It’s easier to get a majority to support seniority based pay or piling up useless certifications than it is to get a majority to support a meritocracy.

  • Which can mean working late for no extra pay, or that if you get done early you should be able to walk without taking a hit on your paycheck.

    In some cases, the nature of the work dictates the degree of flexibility in hours worked. There’s no “leaving early” for police officers. But for the increasing number of desk jobs out there, it makes sense not to treat employees like children and make them sit at their desks, twiddling their thumbs until they’ve put in their eight hours (even if they’ve finished their work and more).

    In the unionized environment where I work, employees invite micromanagement and being treated like children. That’s the flipside of getting those benefits and smoke breaks — someone’s going to be riding you to make sure you put in every minute and dot every i. I can’t say I blame management entirely — there are probably quite a few employees who would take advantage of having more autonomy. Sadly, there’s a huge divide in employee mindsets. There are many people out there who don’t have an orientation towards “getting the job done.” It’s just a paycheck, and as long as they follow the rules and show up, all is good.

    Which brings up another point…

    The mobility of the workforce is much greater than was the case eighty years ago.

    Mobility works well for a lot of white collar, private sector employees. It’s their replacement for job security. However, I’m convinced that there is a very large stratum of workers out there who can’t be, won’t be, or just aren’t very mobile. Occasionally, it’s because the nature of the work they do is so highly specific to their field, there are very poor prospects of translating it into something else. (In the defense industry, for example, there are many occupations that have no close equivalents in other sectors.) There are other reasons for a lack of mobility, not all of which are related to employee intransigence. What to do about this is a thorny issue. The standard economist’s answer is “retraining,” but that’s a bit of a hand wave to me.

    I, too, have the mindset of “getting the job done,” but I’m also aware of the Catholic teaching that the economy serves the person, not the other way around. Unions will continue to play a role for that reason. At the same time, if workers don’t want to be treated like children, they need to reject union ways that invite the comparison.

  • Blue-skying here: Say it was required that companies offer an either/or option on benefits like health insurance and 401k matching: either you can get the benefit through the company, or the company can make a transfer payment to a worker’s association you belong to where you participate in a transferable health care plan and retirement savings account.

    It would also be interesting if membership in a worker’s association actually denoted better than average accountability and performance — say if such a group provided certifications or ratings that were actually useful to employers in finding the best candidates to fill jobs.

    You have described what is currently commonplace in the unionized building trades.

    The union investigated and took the position that they were indeed violating her contract by trying to force her to do more work than was possible during her hours. …So the departments couldn’t discipline

    I’ve never seen a union contract that said a union finding prevents discipline. A Step 1 Grievance allows a worker (or the steward) to put in writing their objection to proposed discipline and receive in writing back from the supervisor the basis for the discipline. Step 2, if appealled, would allow the steward to make the case to the supervisor’s superior. 98% of cases end there. I will conceed that the union is certainly a force in favor of a poor performing worker under a manager who is incapable of articulating or describing what a worker’s preformance problem is. (I,e, a manager who can’t manage). From what you have said, it seems that management could have objectively shown that she is not performing her duties.

  • You have described what is currently commonplace in the unionized building trades.

    Good for them. Though I must say, I think the giant inflatable rats in front of companies that hire non union builders are a bit much. Quality being equal, people do tend to go for the lower bidder. (And when quality is higher at the lower bidder, all the more.)

    http://www.inc.com/magazine/20050301/nbrodsky.html

    Well, and hiring non-union workers to walk the picket lines is also mildly amusing:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704288204575362763101099660.html?mod=googlenews_wsj#printMode

    I will conceed that the union is certainly a force in favor of a poor performing worker under a manager who is incapable of articulating or describing what a worker’s preformance problem is. (I,e, a manager who can’t manage). From what you have said, it seems that management could have objectively shown that she is not performing her duties.

    Honestly, I don’t know where this fell on that question. On the one hand, I know the college had administrative procedures which made it virtually impossible to terminate someone or seriously discipline them without the union’s agreement via an internal arbitration panel with both managers and classified employees on it. On the other, we’re talking about academics here. The department heads were professors in their 60s who taught half time and managed half time, so they may well have been following the path of least resistance: if the union objects, why get into a fight about it.

  • Though I must say, I think the giant inflatable rats in front of companies that hire non union builders are a bit much.

    Really? I LOVE the rat!!!

    Honestly, I don’t know where this fell on that question.

    It seems to me to be a pretty important point. Evaluating a professor seems to me to be a rather subjective discernment and one which I imagine the profession would want their academic peers to be part of the process, not just university administrators. But a secretary? I’m impressed that she was given the opportunity for training. Management did the right thing there and yes, I would recommend filing a grievance if a worker was fired because she was given new duties without the opportunity for training.

    But she took the training and still failed to be able to perform her duties? I don’t see how you get that to arbitration. There is no dispute of fact. Her duties require “X” and she failed to achieve “X” as a simple typing test would show. How do you arbitrate over a typing test?

    If I was her steward, I think I might suggest to management a performance improvement plan where she has three months to bring herself up to objective standards that management defines at the beginning of the 3 month period (such standards being a management prerogative that a union has no right to negotiate over). After that she is either out or in. But that would be my offer to management. They could object.

    if the union objects, why get into a fight about it.

    Well, when I have been called to serve on juries, I’ve never taken the view that since defense counsel objects, why convict? But that’s me.

    In my lifetime, I can think of hundreds and hundreds of workers who would have been unjustly disciplined, had their pay docked, denied a promotion, fired, or been subjected to sexual harassment (a much bigger workplace problem than most white collar conservatives acknowledge) except for the union. And of interest to a Catholic audience, on too many occasion (one would be too many), were able to prevent women from being pressured into abortions by their bosses.

    And I can think of poor performers that, given a chance, were able to improve and become model employees rather than just being fired on the spot. (And I have never known a management official, no matter how anti-union, who to their great credit has not been willing to say to the Chief Steward “Listen, you know what’s happening on the shop floor. If you got one or two guys that are going through a divorce, just started AA, or something like that, you tell me who they are and I’ll give them a break. “)

    On the other hand, yes, there are times management punts. I’ve won cases I didn’t think we had a chance in heck. Part is that management is fine with the idea that one day folks come into work and Kathy is not there and her desk is cleaned out and everyone knows not to ask any questions about their dead of night disappearance. But management is loath to actually give Kathy notice she is in trouble because she might tell another worker that her boss is being mean to her. Well, tough luck. There is a reason management makes the big money and one of those reasons is that they have to manage and make tough decisions.

  • Well, all I can say is, these kind of horror stories simply don’t fit with what I’ve seen in the (primarily public college and school) union workplaces I’ve had most contact with. Getting someone fired at the college where my dad worked was so hard that the only case of an actual “for cause” firing I ever heard of was in the case of a janitor was was arrested for selling cameras and computers he had stolen from the college — and even then he was only fired after being on paid administrative leave for several months while the case was argued.

    How much of that was the result of actual union strength, and how much was the result of the complicated administrative rules which had been put in place (generally with the support of the unions) I don’t know, but competence was definitely not considered a reason for dismissal or even discipline.

  • Well, all I can say is, these kind of horror stories simply don’t fit with what I’ve seen in the (primarily public college and school) union workplaces

    I do note that almost all conservative complaints about unions are not from factories, mines or mills but practically exclusively about academic institutions. Just an observation.

    But your experience doesn’t match mine in a wide variety of employers in different industries. I’m willing to entertain that among academic professionals there is a long tradition (pre-dating unions) of protections regarding academic integrity and that could spill over into administrative jobs. Still, I don’t see how a union wins a grievance when there is objective, quantifiable data supporting management as you suggest with Kathy.

  • Ian Larkin had founded one of the dockworker locals in Liverpool. For three decades he led one of the most militant unions in any port. The workers loved him for his ability to speak up for them and their rights in their backbreaking work. When he died, the union shut down the port for the day of his funeral and the outpouring of emotion from the longshoremen was deep and sincere.

    His son, Jimmy, was elected the second president of the union. While he won the election easily, due to the great affect for his father, many of the other leaders were worried that Jimmy was not up to the job.

    The negotiation of the new contract was a great test for Jimmy Larkin. He stood outdoors on the dock to explain to the workers the new contract, as almost a thousand of them listened attentively. Jimmy announced “Lads, I have good news. Management has agreed to an increase of three pence an hour.” Upon hearing of such a paltry raise, less than Ian Larkin had ever negotiated , there was audible dissention. Jimmy continued “But as you know, times are tough and the company has asked that we give back one paid holiday.” Boos and hisses arose up from the longshoremen assembled before him. “And boys, management asked for give backs on the pension, but we got them to agree to no change.” The longshoremen became unsettled and starting calling out that Jimmy was a bum. He looked at the men before him and shouted out to them “But boys, what do you want?”

    And there, on the docks of Liverpool, was an incredible sight. These brawny workers, spontaneously and with one voice shouted in unison “WE WANT A SOCIALIST REVOLUTION!” Jimmy looked at them, stunned. After a pause, he remarked, “Oh, no lads. I’m sure management would never agree to that.”

  • Not sure how that anecdote was supposed to reassure anyone about unionism. Personally, I’m very much down on socialist revolutions — none of them have turned out well.

  • “And there, on the docks of Liverpool, was an incredible sight. These brawny workers, spontaneously and with one voice shouted in unison “WE WANT A SOCIALIST REVOLUTION!” Jimmy looked at them, stunned. After a pause, he remarked, “Oh, no lads. I’m sure management would never agree to that.”

    I do appreciate the humor of that anecdote Kurt! :)

  • Darwin,

    Its a joke, man! Don gets it and you’re much less a stick in the mud than he is!.. :)

  • Actually Kurt, among my fellow attorneys I am considered wild and zany, but that is among attorneys.

  • Sorry, I guess I have the tidal kind of humor — it comes and goes. ;-)

    For what it’s worth (and I realize there’s nothing more dour than deconstructing a joke) I got the basic joke structure, it’s more that what I found off about the joke is that it seemed like the humor came from the interaction between the dock workers who want all out class war and the union leader who is simply a professional focused on getting the best he can out of each negotiating opportunity. To which my thought would be: See these union members really are crazy reds!

  • Wild and zany among attorneys. Gee…..

    Anyway, to DC. Yes, sometimes workers are crazy Reds. That is why you conservatives funnelled us American unions so much CIA money during the Cold War. Remember?

    Umm, just so I’m clear……you’re not asking for it back, are you? :)

  • Ah well, Kurt, maybe that CIA funding was simply to counteract the influence the CPUSA had with the unions during the 1930’s, no?

    My father ( who began as a simple, noble teenaged laborer in a steel factory, but later became evil incarnate when he graduated to management and thus became The Man) told me in that in the ’30’s the CPUSA ( who we now know was being bankrolled by Stalin) funded union rallies. He attended a few when he was about 15 or 16 years old. He told me the Commies gave the workers darn good sandwiches, which is what he, a male teen with the ravenous appetite of male teens, was mainly concerned about (bear in mind that this was about the same time the great famine was occurring in the USSR, which my dad had no way of knowing about. Not when you had the NYT’s Walter Duranty writing love letters to Stalin and all lesser American media following suit.)

    So, you know, if the CIA messed with the unions in the 1950’s I can sorta understand the rationale there.

  • And, just a reminder, Kurt, those wild and crazy Reds murdered 100 million in the century just past. Read the “Black Book of Communism,” for God’s sake, and tell me there is any humanity or sense in your sick, anti-human, anti-Christ ideology.

    I’ve grown tired of it. I’m tired of the charade that ‘yes, they’re on the left, but they mean well.” No, they don’t. If they do mean well, they are as ignorant and stupid as dirt and they are being led by the nose by those who do not mean well but lust to have power over their fellow humans.

  • Umm, just so I’m clear……you’re not asking for it back, are you?

    Naw. Mission accomplished.

  • Donna,

    Yes, and we of the anti-Communist left did more to contain and end Communism than you and your “useful idiot” (as the Commies called them) relatives ever did. I take it what you meant to say to me was “thank you, Kurt for your effective efforts in bringing down this great evil.”

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