Six Sigma and more: Unions, management, and other people

David SchwinnIn the current, sometimes heated, discussion about the relevance of unions, David Schwinn takes a look at their role and the responsibilities of both union members and managers.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in gridlock on a four-block stretch of Grand Avenue in downtown Lansing, Michigan. If you know anything about Lansing, Michigan, you might suspect my ability to define gridlock. But it was true. Even the national media said that what was happening in Lansing that day was the most significant labor-management event in the last 40 years in Michigan. Labor unions and others were converging on the state capitol in anticipation that the governor would sign a right-to-work law for Michigan. A right–to-work law means that people who work in places that have unions can choose to not join the union and, therefore, not pay union dues. Michigan has been a home for unions since they began.

Once I finally got to school, I decided that this was an event my students should not miss. I gave my Organizational Behavior class an assignment to go to the capitol ( a few blocks away) and interview people who were there, at random, to learn why those folks were there and what they hoped to accomplish. Here are a few stories.

One fellow runs heavy equipment in Detroit. He came to support the union. He has an ill wife and four children to support. He is worried, as were most folks there, that this is just another step toward the destruction of unions. He worries that the loss of unions will bring the loss of his medical insurance that is so essential to the health of his wife and the care of his children.

Two other men, Kevin and his friend, are millwrights who work under contract with auto plants in Michigan and in other parts of the country. They explained that they see a productivity difference between unionized operations and non-unionized operations. Skilled trades people in unionized operations are trained. In non-union, southern states, according to Kevin and his friend, they frequently have to train people who claim to be millwrights in order to get the job done. On the other hand, some folks in Michigan, not people at this rally, say that skilled carpenters, for example, cannot get work in Michigan because they are not unionized even though they are skilled carpenters. Kevin suggested that if the right-to-work law is signed, union trades people should prepare to move to another state. Sounds a little harsh, I think, but his assessment speaks to the level of concern union folks have.

I stopped another fellow, who turned out to be the local president of a communications workers union in southeast Michigan. He came because of his concern that labor unions are in trouble. Although he was not optimistic that the presence of so many people in Lansing would influence the governor to not sign the bill, he hoped that the enormous size of the rally would influence the governor to take a second look at any future governmental actions that would seriously injure unions. He also clarified the law for me. Before the new law, people at unionized places of work did not have to join the union, but they did have to pay a portion of the union dues. He said the portion varied throughout the state, but at his union the cost to non-union employees was about 40 percent of the cost of being a member. Some would say that is a bargain seeing that nonmembers still get many of the union benefits. Others would say that people should not be forced to pay anything to a union.

Next, several teachers from the suburbs around Detroit asked me what I was up to. When I told them about my class project, I asked them their stories. They had several things to say. They noticed that their pay has been progressively cut over the last several years, despite their union’s best efforts to maintain quality in the classroom. Teachers are not paid for master’s degrees. One district has said they intend to lay teachers off based on absenteeism. They noticed the proliferation of charter schools in Michigan with no solid data that charter schools improve education. As a matter of fact, one of the teachers, a special education teacher, observed that special education students are frequently refused entrance into charter schools because the charter schools are not capable of teaching those students. The unintended consequence of that is, of course, that special needs students, who need extra help, are concentrated in the public schools, which are increasingly getting less monetary assistance.

Although my students heard similar stories, they were quick to be sure we all understood their own experiences outside the classroom where unions cause low productivity and prevent people from being fired who should be fired. They also noticed that many of the jobs they hold pay wages so low that they can barely survive economically. Those same jobs do not provide benefits and have terrible working conditions. They finally reported the frequency with which their managers encourage waste and, thereby, throw money out the window that could be used to pay better wages and/or benefits or to improve the working conditions.

Just to dispel a possible misconception about my students and many other students in higher education, most of them need to work because they live on their own, pay for school and books, and, in many cases, take care of a family. My own experience with both union and non-union organizations as both a manager and a worker is that unions try to lower productivity, as do managers. Sometimes managers try to improve productivity and sometimes so do unions. My experience is that unions do a better job of protecting workers who try to improve working conditions than do whistleblower laws. My own experience in a union shop is that managers do not fire low performing employees because they fail to follow the difficult process required to make that happen, not because it is impossible. I think the bottom line is that if all managers were good at their jobs, there would be no need for unions. I, unfortunately, do not find many good managers. On the other side of the argument, I find many union representatives who also do not do their jobs in a way that is in the long term best interests of the people they represent. Union-management cooperation has been tried in some places and worked. It is a possible solution. There are probably also other solutions. I do not know what they are. Maybe you do. I’m interested.

The governor signed the bill saying that it will bring jobs to Michigan. That may be true. As I understand it, the evidence is slim. There seems to be stronger evidence that those jobs, if they come, will bring with them lower wages, fewer benefits, and worse working conditions. In a new, more global economy where the U.S. has been at the top of the worldwide pecking order for the last 60 years or so, maybe the change in jobs is inevitable. I hope not. Maybe unions can help cushion that inevitable decline. Maybe they will make it worse. Maybe a more recent and holistic look at the economics of globalism, itself, will change the tide as described in the December, 2012 issue of The Atlantic magazine in articles by James Fallows and Charles Fishman. (Washington, D.C.) I am not sure. I do not believe the decline for us as individuals is inevitable.

As people who work for a living, we can make ourselves entrepreneurs. We can gain credentials that help us get good jobs. We can gain knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience that will make us more marketable in a global marketplace. We can work our hardest to make our current employers want to keep and take care of us while we find other employment if wages or benefits are too low, working conditions are harmful, or intentions are beneath our worth as human beings.

As managers and leaders, we can start by applying the “platinum rule.” We can treat our employees as they want to be treated. We can go beyond that to treat them as the intelligent, creative, hard-working miracles they are and, as my friend and inspirational magician, Andrew Bennett, says, abracadabra, they will be those miracles.

My experience at the Capitol affirmed my bias that many, if not most, formal managers are unworthy of the authority they are given. But there are many, many managers and leaders who are worthy. I have worked for some…Jim Croghan at General Motors, Frank Macher at Ford, and Bill Holda at Lansing Community College, for example. Carole and I found many all over the world during my recent sabbatical. We’ll be sharing those stories in The Transformational Workplace. Find those leaders, emulate them, illuminate their stories, and work for them if you can. That might be a way to make the workplace a better place and render unions unnecessary.

In the movie, The Help,“You is smart, you is kind, you is important.” is famously quoted. Let’s add “You is powerful” and then act like it. We, our children, and our grandchildren are worth it.

As always, I treasure your thoughts. You can reach me by commenting below.