Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Future of Unions

Ezra Klein has written a great column about unions titled "How unions can be more than a legacy institution." He offers an honest look at why unions have been so unpopular in recent decades. We all know that only 7% of private sector workers are unionized today. This number went down dramatically since the 1970ies when over a quarter of all private sector employees were members of a union. 

Today's crisis in Wisconsin, says Klein, has offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the unions to gain the sympathies of the public and make themselves attractive to larger numbers of the population. In order to do so, unions have to recognize and renounce practices that have caused so much popular resentment against them:
If unions are to not just survive, but to actually flourish again, they need to create an identity beyond being a protection service for people who aren't very good at their jobs.
 As I mentioned before, I used to be a union organizer for the graduate students at my university. Our union achieved many important things. However, there came a time where I couldn't, in good conscience, associate myself with it any longer. The union consistently tailored all of its decisions, policies and strategic goals to the needs of the underachievers. Those who believed they needed 8 to 10 years to complete their doctoral program were supported and celebrated as true scholars while those of us who wanted to graduate as soon as possible could not get our needs taken into consideration by the union. The culmination of this drive towards turning us all into underachievers was a forceful union campaign to abolish grades for graduate courses and the union's passionate conviction that it is unacceptable for professors to fail graduate students at their comprehensive exams. 

For some reason that I still haven't been able to grasp, many unions operate under the assumption that all workers contribute equally and that no employee can be lazy, incompetent and stupid. Any system that is based on this set of beliefs is bound to fail. It will reward the underachievers and punish hard workers. Unions often prevent people who have done a particularly good job to be rewarded. (I have seen this happen at the school where I work right now, so don't tell me it doesn't happen.) As a result, productive people will end up carrying the load of their lazy colleagues while getting no reward for it. How soon, do you think, the quality of everybody's performance will drop? 

Unions should abandon the pernicious idea that nobody is better, more intelligent, more hard-working and more worthy of being rewarded than anybody else. They should remember that their goal is defending the rights of live human beings and not some robots that always act the same and produce work of the same quality. If anything will save the unions, it is the recognition that while people should be equal, they will never be the same.


Pagan Topologist said...

Where were you a union organizer, Clarissa?

Clarissa said...

Yale. Our union is called GESO.

Patrick said...

Believe it or not, this is the core of the conservative philosophy: equal but different.

Clarissa said...

Your conservatism, maybe. As for the Republicans, not so much.

J. said...

In my own experience, some of the abuses seem to come from the reality I've observed that the people who don't want to work hard, aren't quite succeeding/lack the skills, and are generally discontent with everything, are the ones who come to the union meetings and whine and complain the most.

In the union of which I am a member, most of the membership doesn't even come to meetings, because they are so sick of the whining of a few people about stupid pointless things--most of us just want to work, have our work protected and justly compensated, and do a good job so that everyone gets what they need and the need for our services continues. Which unfortunately means that the ONLY voices at the meetings are those of the whining complainers.

I on the other hand make a point to go to these meetings, if for no other reason than to voice my opinion, or failing that, to hear what the whiners whine about so that I can then, after the fact, approach the union rep and say, "for the record...not everyone feels that way."

It's not a perfect world. But you hit it on the nose with this post.

Pagan Topologist said...

My standard image of unions includes Actors' Equity, The Screen Actors' Guild, The American Guild of Musical Artists, and the Major League Baseball Players' Union, etc. I do not recall any of these protecting incompetent workers. So, I find the idea that unions protect less than stellar workers suspect to say the least.