Published July 6, 2009
I ran across an interesting opinion piece in Newsweek today. It's called "Unions: We're Better Off Without Them." It's timed to campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would modify some of the rules surrounding the process of employee union elections.
Depending on your view, either despite the prevalence of unions in this area or because of it, there are many negative perceptions of unions here, some of which are repeated by Kevin Kelly, the CEO of Emerald Packaging:
We worry that a union might attempt to drive up wages higher than we can afford, or foist a health care plan on us more expensive than our thin margins can handle. Our past experience with a union taught us—and many of [our] employees said as much—that too often the union protected employees with the lowest production or worst quality. We also know that some union contracts strictly limit the ability of managers to help run or setup machinery, something that would deeply hurt our company, where supervisor's [sic] often wield wrenches.
Kelly bemoans the hard work of fighting off the union's advances:
About 13 years ago our company's employees voted to get rid of the union they'd had for nearly 30 years. But the six weeks before the vote were horrible. Union organizers, including one flown in from headquarters, descended on our company, pigeonholing employees on the plant floor. Production crashed, and our scrap rate tripled. Determined to stay neutral, we finally had to speak up once rumors began to spread that we'd close the plant if the union won.
All of this does leave the impression that the company is better off without the union. What about the workers?
Truthfully, we hadn't been prepared for life without a union. We didn't build a human resources department, failed to craft a wage scale to guarantee timely increases, and didn't reach out enough to hear employee concerns.
The mere thought of new labor law has inspired some companies to react. One business in my city has started to pay more attention to employee communication, publishing a monthly newsletter and holding meetings with shifts to explain how the company is doing. "We hope by opening lines of communication that folks will feel better about the company," the owner told me. "And, of course, less likely to embrace a union." Another business owner has gone so far to hire a firm to conduct an employee survey so he can identify and resolve any festering problems.
[T]he process refocused my mind on our plant floor relations. So I hired a labor consultant to do an employee survey which turned up some issues we've begun to address, like putting an emphasis on internal promotion rather than outside hiring. We should do many of the things he turned up. All too often the day-to-day struggle of running a business muddles priorities. Now, with some union likely to target our company once the new labor law passes, I won't get distracted again.
All of this sounds like the unions, even when unsuccessful in getting employees to organize, serve as a catalyst to refocus employers on how they're serving their employees. That can't be all bad.