Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Union Impressions: Rules vs. Work

All of the discussion in the Catholic blosphere, 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.


"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.


Foxfier said...

Not just do less, but get away with not doing your basic job.

We had a guy in my first shop-- we were military, he wasn't-- who deliberately failed the upper levels of training so he could only do a very simple, easy, low demand part of the job. He didn't do it well, and sat there reading most of the day.

He'd been there eight years when they finally managed to prove to the satisfaction of the union that he was falsifying his time cards.

Anonymous said...

In the absence of unions, managers WILL exploit their workers. That is not a statement of opinion, but an observation from US history. Google "Triangle Shirtwaist Company" to get a taste of what things were like for the working class before unions, or read about how Andrew Carnegie used to treat his workers. Unions invented the weekend.

It's true that unions can and do become just as corrupt, selfish, and damaging to society as the managers they are supposed to be holding accountable. But let's not overreact. When people see problems in the military they never suggest that we should just eliminate it or neuter it - that treatment is only prescribed for unions.


Foxfier said...


Darwin says he doesn't like how Unions are right now in the US, but doesn't say anything about eliminating them.

On the other hand, people most assuredly do suggest destroying or entirely remaking the military at the drop of a hat, let alone for real problems!

Darwin said...


Yes, I'm aware of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. (Side note, that particular incident has become such a major historical event for some people that the children's non fiction section of our library back in Texas had more books about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire than it did about the Civil War. Whether this reflects their relative historical importance is, I suppose, a question open to interpretation.)

However, I don't see how one can lay all the changes in the workplace since the worst employers in the worst days of the 19th century at the doorstep of unions. At no point in US history have most US workers belonged to unions, and indeed, union membership peaked long after most of those kind of abuses were eliminated.

Further, I've always been fortunate enough to work in non-union workplaces, and although I've had a couple of managers I considered stupid or incompetent (it was one of these who inadvertently set in motion the events that landed us with a new job in Ohio) I've never had one who tried to "exploit" the workers under him or her.

Foxfier said...

As I remember, the big exploitations-- ever listen to "16 tons"?-- are illegal without counting unions, as is locking your employees into a room and not having sufficient safety exits.

I'd say unions are far more likely to exploit workers, especially when one is forced to join and people who flatly refuse to do their job are protected.

Anonymous said...

darwin, you make a solid point in your comment above: unions are not solely responsible for the dramatic improvements in the lives and working conditions of ordinary Americans. Government regulations on business have also had a lot to do with it. Excellent point.

Regarding stupid managers - I used to work at the one non-union factory that Caterpillar had in the US in the mid-90's. My boss at the time said, "really bad management will create a union. The workers are going to take care of themselves one way or another." I saw this attitude reflected in managers all over the factory - they tried really hard (and largely successfully) to build trust with the men on the line, partly because they knew it's the right way to run a business, but mainly because they were terrified that the UAW would move in. The current movement to strip unions of much of their power will have the unintended consequence of enabling stupid managers to keep their jobs. American competitiveness will suffer from this.


Darwin said...

Well, and believe me, I have no problem with the government regulating safety standards within reason -- of which "don't lock your employees in a room without exits" is obviously a no-brainer. Though, whether this is naive or not, I really don't think that most managers want to do that anyway. Just because Triangle Shirtwaist happened doesn't mean that most employers were that bad or wanted to be.

My boss at the time said, "really bad management will create a union. The workers are going to take care of themselves one way or another." I saw this attitude reflected in managers all over the factory - they tried really hard (and largely successfully) to build trust with the men on the line, partly because they knew it's the right way to run a business, but mainly because they were terrified that the UAW would move in.

Well, I would agree with this to an extent. I do think that it's primarily bad businesses and bad managers who drive employees to form unions -- and that good businesses tend not to get unionized. (See, for example, Trader Joe's, which is both an outstanding specialty grocery chain with good prices and is un-unionized -- while paying their workers significantly more than the average grocery store.)

Where I'd differ is on the idea that most managers want to be stupid and only hold back because they're afraid of unions. That just isn't my experience. Now admittedly, I'm dealing with office work, not manufacturing. Perhaps that's different. But my experience is that just getting and keeping good workers in the first place is hard enough that most managers honestly do try to treat employees well and keep them happy just in an effort to retain the best people.

Mrs. Zummo said...

I think managers are less likely to abuse and exploit their employees if good employees are valuable and worth keeping. It's simple economics. If the unemployment rate were very high, there would be people lining up to be exploited just to feed their families. Even with our 9% unemployment rate most people aren't willing to sacrifice their health and safety for a job. We also have social services which can keep workers somewhat picky about the work they take.

Also I think most managers (or the good ones) realize that happy employees are more productive. It's always cheaper to keep an existing employee than to find a replacement. So there are incentives to being a nice place to work. Unhappy workers can also sabotage the business. I just witnessed this today.

We had a contractor come out to bid on a small home improvement project, installing some interior doors. The price quoted was astronomical. Then as I was talking to the guy he starts bad mouthing the company. Talking about how the boss's profit margins are too high, and how his workers did a bad job on a project for the estimator's family. The estimator had the cost of putting the project right subtracted from his paycheck. So he was pissed. Consequently he lost business for the company, which I think was his intention. Moral, be nice to your employees.

Anonymous said...

darwin wrote: "Where I'd differ is on the idea that most managers want to be stupid and only hold back because they're afraid of unions."

Well, yes, no one *wants* to be stupid. But some people just *are* stupid. And many of them, for reasons that still completely baffle me, become managers.


Mary said...

Whoo Hoo...I am a high school teacher who thinks unions can be evil at times. I was doing my student teaching in a rough, urban district and painfully watched as a massive, angry woman shoved a VHS tape into a television in front of her "Health Class" and ran a boring video, while she screamed obscenities into a phone during the entire period.

These were at-risk kids who could have used a good health class, and I was so traumatized that she did this, and then by her comments at the end of class as we filed out. She took me aside and said, "Yeah, I am the union rep for this pod of the school so that is why I take phone calls during class. These stupid kids wouldn't pay attention anyhow.." I just shuddered

I am a teacher for a system that takes into account merit pay, and I think we should certainly abolish tenure. What is the point of it at all? It is poisonous.

That said, my husband is in high tech, and he has seen his share of lazy coders sit around on their duff after their company was acquired, as they watched their options vest. THey are not fired. People do not like confrontation. They will allow mediocrity to fester for much longer than it should sometimes. And these guys are paid twice to three times what most teachers are paid...


Benjamin Baxter said...

Because other bloggers are distinguishing between state unions and private employee unions.

I'm a member of the local SEIU union. I just started working at the local DMV Call Center, hired in a two-week window between Arnold's hiring freeze and Jerry's. It's the best job I've ever had.

DMV rank-and-file -- approx. 20-to-one the most numerous pay schedule on the payroll --- haven't received a monetary raise almost as long as I've been alive. Not COLA, not nothing. That works out to 22 years. We've only managed to get raises through benefits, so I suppose it works out even --- or it would, if there weren't a hiring freeze preventing all the retirees getting replaced.

I'd rather have money than breaks. I can't get money, so I'll settle for breaks. I think this line of thought is why we ended up with great benefits and shoddy pay.

Foxfier said...

Didn't the California DMV go to the Federal minimum wage a couple of years back?

Amber said...

I recently watched 9 days that changed the world about Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland and all the changes that it helped spark in that country - one of the big ones being the formation of the union Solidarity. The movie - produced by Newt Gingrich, someone I can't imagine is at all pro union in the US - was certainly very pro-Solidarity, and rightly so, I think. I have to wonder though - what is it like there today? Do all unions devolve into what we see in the US where the primary purpose seems to be increasing benefits and protecting the incompetent? Is it the nature of our fallen world that eventually all human entities turn away from their original mission and hopes?

Rebekka said...

In the very unionized country I live in (not the US) and the very unionized profession I work in, I have to say that I can't recognize any of those examples at all.