Sunday, August 31, 2008

There is a reason we have elections

One more posting in honor of Labor Day.

Recently, an op-ed was published in the Boston Globe, entitled "Unions' new role in the workplace". It was written by Kris Rondeau and Janna Malamud Smith. People with good memories will remember that Rondeau was a driving force in the creation of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) twenty years ago. The slogan she and her colleagues developed -- "You can't eat prestige" -- was one of the masterstrokes of union organizing. It took several tries, but finally the union eked out a small majority in an election and became the bargaining agent for a significant number of workers at Harvard University. They were able to do so, ultimately, because they had a personal and respectful relationship with virtually every person voting in that election. Many of those employees viewed themselves as professionals who did not want or need a union. Rondeau did not attempt to bypass those people by ignoring their concerns. Instead they were treated with just as much respect as those who wanted the union. The result was that even those on the losing side of the vote felt their views had been heard and considered and did not fall into a posture of resentment and anger.

In my previous job as Administrative Dean of Harvard Medical School, I had many opportunities to work with Rondeau and her colleagues and enjoyed what we were able to accomplish together. She and her team were great negotiators, but the key to their success during this process -- like during the organizing drive -- was that they were intimately familiar with virtually every member of their union -- both learning from them and teaching them. Indeed, the HUCTW often had a better perspective on what would make the University work better than the administrators and supervisors in the University, because they had a real connection to what was happening on the "factory floor." But, instead of being confrontational with that information, they used it to educate the management, too, and worked together to enhance both the lives of workers and the underlying mission of the University.

In their op-ed Rondeau and Smith offer the opinion that this approach to union-management relations should be a guide for the future. This is a great vision, but whether or not it will be achieved is questionable. Just look at the comments under the article to see opposing views. There are clearly those who will always believe that "allying with the employer is the wrong approach and ultimately not in workers' interests; when workers' and bosses' interests occasionally coincide, it's the exception rather than the rule."

But the HUCTW history supports one point in which I believe quite firmly. If the organizing approach being advocated by the SEIU and many politicians is adopted -- i.e., the elimination of elections -- they will have created a cancer of discontent within the very union expansions they hope to achieve. Why? Because there will always be a significant number of workers in every company -- whether 30%, 40%, 50% or 60% -- who would choose to vote against unionization in a secret ballot process. By disenfranchising that group through the use of a card-check system, the unions will be sowing the seeds of resentment that will hurt them for years to come.

In America, we accept the idea that we might be on the losing side of an election, and we live with that result. But, if we are precluded from being allowed to have a say, we remain angry for a long, long time.

This was put more elegantly than I have done in comments I received from an organizer in one of the local Boston unions:

I must say I don't understand why anyone would think that to take away a person's right to an election is good idea. It's seems to me that it would create a feeling of disempowerment instead the feelings that should be created: The feelings of pride and of finding your voice, realization of the fact that you have value to add and a respectful way of sharing it.

8 comments:

robstersmith said...

Having been a shop steward for a Television station in the Bay Area, I can appreciate you words about how to organize. It has to be a labor of love, or it won't work very well.

Nicely written, robin burns

John said...

Hi Paul, greetings from Malaysia. I agree with your thoughts on elections.

By the way, I found your blog via Blogs of Note. Congrats on that, and you do have a very nice blog here. I'm gonna add you to my daily dose of blogs.

Coincidentally, the date of this post of yours is also Malaysia's Independence Day :)

Paul Levy said...

Thanks, John, and I hope you all have a great celebration.

Anonymous said...

As a complete ignoramus on this issue, I have been educated by following Paul's ongoing posts and links, as well as the responding comments on both the blog and the links. (The Slate comments were especially interesting.)

The point about why the politicians are avoiding being specific, to me, can be dismissed quickly. It's because politicians never want to be caught being too specific while there is still a vote to be had. Cynical, maybe, but true.

The real issue here appears to be - first, are unions still useful to anyone on either side, and, if one decides they are, then second - are unions in their current form useful
to workers and a positive influence on the companies they affect?

As a hospital-based M.D., where we are often in the (non-participatory but observational) middle of such controversies in hospitals, I can see both sides. Certainly I have seen the presence of unions interfere with getting rid of lazy or incompetent employees and therefore jeopardize patient care. However, I have also seen rapacious and/or incompetent administrations destroy working conditions, cut clinical staffing to the bone and also jeopardize patient safety.
Therefore, my personal opinion is that some form of organized worker input would be useful. However, I have to agree with the Slate commenters that most large unions in their current form benefit their officers more than their members. News reports abound on corruption and scandals, including the SEIU, which is who we're really talking about right now, isn't it?

So my advice to workers at Boston hospitals is, if you have issues, organize yourselves like the Harvard clerks did. You'll pay less and get more bang for your buck. On the national scene, Gould's suggestions seem reasonable as an incremental solution - but I think the future of unions in their current form is fragile.

Middle America Voices said...

I still have trouble comprehending the need for unions in the United States in this day and age. I have never been a union member, but of all the strike coverage I've seen over the decades it's not an organization I dream of having membership in.

Granted, the unions were important when we didn't have OSHA and the various other laws that we do now.

So, I ask, what do the unions do for its members aside from forcing employers to ship jobs elsewhere and put thousands out of work? And if the employers do stay in business, they have to keep "dead weight" on the job, just because they're a union member.

Certainly, private elections are a good idea. Coercion never is.

ailsa said...

A refreshing and modern take on unions. I totally concur with your sentiment, we(workers and management) are both working on a successful endeavour regardless of the business involved (for me its academia). There are huge advantages working in a win-win way. Success can be shared. Issues rapidly negotiated in good faith. I too have had the pleasure of working with enlightened management, all policies are codeveloped with union representation. Great post found on blog of note.

mattysoul said...

Do you really think that was necessary?

Anonymous said...

The days of unions has passed. Unions have turned from protecting workers against unsafe working conditions, child labor minimum wages to what I liken to organized youth soccer league parents, where all the kids are coddled
Just like youth soccer the unions don’t want to keep score. If little Johnny scored 10 goals a game or one of my employees constantly out performs the rest of his team, should he not be recognized and properly compensated? Well just like in youth soccer no matter how skilled you are you are treated just like little Johnny and get the same ice cream after the game as the rest of the team. What if I had two Johnny’s on my team and felt that I don’t need any other players. These two are doing the work of four non skilled lads. My goodness the league/union would be up in arms "this would be unfair" would be the cries, "what about all of the other kids/union employees on the team."

When trying to make a team great there must be a way to get rid of the bad players without the handcuffs of a union and the rest of the soccer moms allowing the unskilled to remain on the team.

The unions have turned into a soccer mom where all the low achievers can hide behind her dress and be protected.

I leave you with this very true story.
On a construction site I witnessed an unsafe practice by a construction worker a practice that could have killed him if the conditions were right. I turned to the shop steward and said that man does not have on proper protection. The steward turned to me and said that man up there is a hell of a worker, he works day and night and he is the hardest worker I have and walked away in the opposite direction of what we witnessed. Not once did I comment on his performance I was only pointing out an obvious safety issue, but it was the soccer mom mentality that felt he had to protect him by telling me how hard he works and ignoring the glaring problem