So I wrote earlier this week about how bad management can actually make unions seem an attractive alternative. Then I remembered this article from The New York Times about the American Airlines seat fiasco.
The union says that shoddy work from poorly trained contractors was to blame.
Let me take a look at two streams feeding today’s labor river. First, somewhere around 60 years ago companies for the most part ended apprenticeship programs. My grandfather quit school after the 10th grade and got a job at The Monarch Machine Co. as an apprentice machinist. He leveraged his growing skills into better jobs until he became a production superintendent at a General Motors plant. But companies transferred that training task to schools almost without warning. Schools were unprepared at the time.
Second, I know that some skilled trades unions provide some training for members. What if unions took on more of that task and then marketed themselves as providers of skilled workers? What if they became partners and team players? I know, it takes the other “side” to make a team. But stay with me here. I’m dreaming–or visualizing. What if? Of course, just like all of us, they’d have to continually prove that their training was good and continual. Otherwise it would be empty marketing rhetoric.
Maybe it’s a way for them to be more relevant–and solve a huge problem facing American manufacturing businesses.
Many have said, and I agree, that unions are a sign of poor leadership and rotten management. Unfortunately, poor leadership and poor management is not limited to corporation executives. Union leaders have lost their way as well.
Unfortunately we use political methods to decide who gets to lead. And politicians will only do the right thing after exhausting all the other alternatives. We have been very good at giving them every opportunity to get things wrong.
It up to those who work in these unions and corporations to hold those in charge responsible. Sure, there are happy accidents. A few corporate executives seem to "get it", while here and there there one can find signs of actually laudable union behavior.
Nevertheless, I wouldn't rely upon unions or corporate executives fixing themselves. That would cost money and it is hard to demonstrate a significant short term payback. The real problem is that nobody wants to build anything for the longer term. Everything is throw-away short term thinking.
If we could just get leaders to think for a term longer than their own tenure (and stock options), it would revolutionize industry. But as long as we keep putting sociopathic idiots in charge, we have no reason to expect any better.
The problem with unions is that they do not want to evolve. They still have an us against them mentality. All socialist systems fail eventually and unions are built on socialism. They remove individual excellence and substitute spreading the wealth around. Seniority trumps excellence. Ask anyone, whom would you rather promote in a job, the person that has been there the longest or the person whom you believe to be the most qualified. If a union member owned his/her own business they'd surely think differently. I often thought that would be a key to changing the union. If you paid the union to produce widgets at a per widget rate and let the union staff and train and pay their members the members could profit through becoming more efficient and putting the right people in the right jobs. They would then have the incentive that manage has to become low cost as the money they save could be paid in higher wages. By changing the dynamics so that both sides have similar goals you promote a win/win as opposed to an us against them. It is very rare to see a union and a management working together. Unions attack the management to get their foot in the door and have to continue to build a wall between them so that employees feel a sense of being cared for by the union. For unions to evolve, they need to become partners with management, build a system where they can control their pay and incentives, and build a better widget at a lower cost.
Under normal circumstances, I would say that if they had a common enemy that each of them perceived as a greater threat to their future than each other, they could work together. However, most union leadership has a kamikaze world view that would rather see their employers go out of business than work with their (mis)perceived mortal enemies (aka employers.) Most union members, however, don't share the radical extremist views of their leadership.
For unions to become a positive influence and competitive advantage would require a revolution within the unions that throws out the destructive leaders in favor of rational thinkers. Current union leaders would rather see their union destroyed than let that happen.
So, what CAN be done? I would like to see labor laws changed to allow a unionized company to accept bids from competing unions for labor contracts. For example, if Ford has a labor contract with the UAW coming to an end, they should have the option to solicit bids from any other unionized body of laborers as well as the UAW. So, imagine the outcome if could I put together a union made up of veterans, women entering the work force after raising their children, and other reliable workers. And, what if these workers were willing to work for $40 per hour rather than $60 the UAW is demanding. And, what if my union had an established reputation for policing themselves and being a competitive advantage for the companies they serve? Shouldn't Ford have the right to contract with my union rather than be compelled to bargain only with the UAW?
Companies could partner with labor to compete and everybody wins, or, companies can try to survive an economic dark-age where brutality and fiscal destruction is the norm. (Think Hostess.)
There already is a partnership between union and management for employee training. The National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee is a partnership between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractor's Association. There are also Joint Apprenticeship Training Committees at the local level. Both union and management support training for apprentices and journeymen. I teach at a training center and I see firsthand how quality and safety are emphased and that learning is considered a career commitment.