Sunday, December 18, 2005

Unions - Part 1

When I was a youngster, unions were the enemy. It was generally believed in my entourage that unions were the bane of companies. It was an evil force, created for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc upon commercial enterprise. It was a communist ploy to bring down capitalism.

And on the face of it, all this appears true.

As I grew older, in university specifically, it dawned on me that the concept of a union was misunderstood. There was a student strike while I was at the UQAM – Université du Québec à Montréal. Now that was possibly the single most inane application of union imaginable. A strike is meant to apply pressure. What, exactly, where these idiots applying pressure to? A demonstration would have been singularly more effective. As it was the strike degenerated into hormonal-induced semi-violent manifestation. At least we made the evening news. Not sure we made the next day’s news though.

I attended class. I had no time to waste with useless and only semi-representative gathering of government leeches. Indeed the students who the most vocal were the ones on scholarships and bursaries. The government wanted to roll back the amount of bursaries handed out to students. A bursary is a 2000$ to 10000$ government straight-up hand-out. Not a loan. This was in the early 80’s!

Since my own parents were apparently rich, I was not eligible for a government-financed automobile. I had to fend for myself and drain my summer jobs income on education fees. It goes without saying that I had little pity for the presumably poor folks driving brand new Mazdas and living in plush 4 and ½ room apartments.

I am being a little facetious, since not all who got bursaries were scam artists. It does seem that these less-than-honest types were the ones on strike and bitching the loudest.

This yielded my first experience with union disparity. A union is supposed to represent people of common interest. But some are truly stretched. Just because we were all students, doesn’t mean the association was meaningful.

As I grew older still, and became a more integral part of the work force, my view was again readjusted. I had heard stories of bad management and lousy working conditions. They all seemed far away. Not of my reality. Remember, I came out of the 1980’s recession with the mindset that a job was a privilege. I was just happy to get one!

I can’t say exactly when, unlike with the student strike, but over the course of the next few years, I saw a place for unions. Furthermore, as a manager, I did everything in my power to keep my employees reasonably satisfied. I was never afraid of my employees getting unionized. Nevertheless an underlying respect of the worker is simple enough to accomplish. If grievances are properly addressed, there is no real reason for the employees to mass against The Man™. Why would I want to unionize if I am satisfied with my lot?

It all seemed logical, and cost effective. At least it did to me. Little did I know that this view was not widely held by corporate leaders.

Employee abuse in the name of good business is not good business. May be a good looking bottom line, but that’s so very obviously short sighted. The kicker is that employees can be abused for a long time before a revolt ensues, thereby allowing the corporation to make a killing in the meantime. When the lines of communication break down, as they always do in such circumstances, then the union-breaker plan is put into effect.

Oddly enough, the union-breaker plan starts with applying pressure to the low-level managers first. He, or she, is told to manage the issue. The words “when the going gets tough…” get hauled out to create a sense of inadequacy in the manager to get him, or her, to do unconscionable things. I won’t get into the mechanics of this, but lower management is always the first victim of any breaker plans.

Then the obvious happens: the situation worsens, the big wigs bail with whatever cash is left and the unions get in anyway. Historically this has been proven time and again, and I have seen my share of this behaviour.

Could it be that unions are simply created out of a sense of revenge? Furthermore, a revenge against lousy management? The conditions of employment are usually directly related with the talent, or lack thereof, of corporate leaders. Sometimes economy is a deciding factor, no doubt, and so is government. The union is thusly formed and an all-consuming power of retribution along with it.

If a company has to abuse its employees in order to turn a profit, then something is very, very wrong. If this remains wrong for long enough, and then revenge sets in, you get this picture: capitalism is evil, stick it to The Man™, those bastards will pay.

Even if things are set right afterwards, it is too late. The union has been formed, and will not dissolve easily. As a group the need for revenge runs deep, very deep.


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