The New Role of Unions in Business

The New Role of Unions in Business
Monday, August 13th, 2012 Scott Bossart

                There are a lot of discussions regarding the role of unions in business today.  First off I will preface this piece with my personal belief and opinion of Unions.  I believe there is a place in the business world for a unionized workforce but not from the typical perspective or attitude of the proverbial “What’s in it for me”, but more of how collective bargaining can help move the business forward.  There was, arguably, a need for the mindset and role that a Union represented but now that mindset requires a transition from a combative to collaborative relationship.  If you consider the conditions in place at the times unions really took hold in the work place, there was a true need for the work force to have a robust, bold, and collective representative voice.  Company leadership was careless in many cases placing a very low value on workers safety and rights.  Workers were routinely treated at a lower class then the leadership and there was a common negative leadership mentality towards workers’ ability to actually contribute to the growth of an organization.  They were forced to long hours, low pay, poor conditions, as well as a submissive mentality was demanded.  This history is well known, documented, and well understood by most businesses today.  While not all companies acted in this manor, many did and it seemed the bigger the organization, the more prevalent the hard conditions.  These harsh circumstances drove the unionized work force into tough and painful negations and it required a combative role to improve the overall workplace conditions.

                Over the last couple decades, an organizations’ mentality towards the value of the work force, has transitioned.  The mentality as a whole is more of a desired collaborative role as opposed to a combative role.  The union picture or perspective from its membership has also changed from what it once started as.  The membership understands the power of a collective force supporting their needs and rights, but also sees the transition of the company leadership wanting to work more closely as well as placing more value on an employee as a knowledgeable and experienced asset for success.  There is a stigma that has also begun to form around the union environment regarding their role as working to save the fringe employee who plays the system and functions on a sub-par level.  This creates resentment and discontent for the general workforce and diminishes the entire relationship between the union and the organizations leadership.  Remember what I have stated before…’The work force will rise to the lowest level of expectations’.  In some cases, the union discourages employees to put forth any extra effort or added gain to the organization.  This process also builds an undesirable attitude at a level that may have an impact to efficiency or effectiveness for the business to grow and succeed.  This is not to say, that all business leaders have the workers’ best interest at heart though.  Many organizational leaders still focus solely on the value of the organization at all costs and regard staff as easily replaced and not capable of self-direction or self-value added contribution to the organizations success.  With either attitude individually, the relationship can become combative but if both are true at the same time, it is most assuredly not going to be collaborative.

As a general premise, I believe a majority of workers want to perform at their best and want to add value to an organizations success.  Also, as a general premise, I believe most business leaders want the workers to not only be successful in their assigned tasks, but also in their personal achievement that they have performed to their best as well as want a fair and equitable reward for the work force level of performance.  The role of the union must still be a collective voice representing the general mass for the work force.  However, this collective voice must transition from the typical “how can we guarantee the employment of all”, to “how can we help the organization establish a reasonable standard of expectation”, within which the workforce will perform.  It is a very different mentality entirely.  This mentality establishes the collective union leadership as a collective value added organizational leader.  Companies routinely shut down due to inoperable contractual circumstances.  In many cases, you can arguably contribute these factors solely on poor management.  But the very same can be true of over-reaching and restrictive contract situations between the unionized work force and an organization.  It is important from both sides to fully understand the costs impact for the terms of the relationship.  While many contracts between an organization and a union work force establish rules and guidelines where each will work within, how many actually establish a minimum standard with which the work force will function as well as present that minimum standard in a guaranteed fashion?  Some more progressive businesses will establish a level of performance providing a “Goal Bonus” or other level of incentive paying out in monetary or other enticing gain to the work force.  While these do help the organization, there still exists the mentality that low performance is solely up to the organization leadership to correct and not the union leadership.

Given the work environment of the competition against who gets a job today, one open position can generate hundreds of applications.  Consider the impact if the union leadership were to recognize poor performance and attacked it on their own knowing what is good business for the collective organization as opposed to the negative impact to the organization of one individual having holding onto a position that an otherwise positive impact person could do.  This is not to say that all unions currently function in a negative way.  Some organization and union relationships are very strong and collaborative.  But as a general rule, especially so when a larger union body of workers exists, the tendency is to focus on retaining the entire work force regardless if an individual is performing at any level of standard to benefit the total organization.  As I work in many facilities both unionized and non-unionized, I am amazed at the “Autonomous” (non-union) work force organizations, actually function as if a union contract was in place.  Rules and guidelines are in place for filling open positions, discipline, and all other work parameters regarding expectations and relationships between the work force and the organization leaders.  Image with the experience of the union leadership in dealing directly with their membership to take a role in an organization that establishes a minimum standard.  Imagine the level of expectation what they could present to the organization that will aid in the business growth.  Is there a change required in the working relationship between an organization and the union?  I believe there is.  Is there value in having a collective union voice for the benefit of the collective organization?  I believe there is.  It all boils down to who is better equipment to direct and lead the masses of the workforce and I strongly believe a collective and collaborative union force could be better equipped to assist the business in growth and success.  It is already happening in many areas.  Hopefully it can continue throughout.

Stay Well

Scott B.


Leave a reply