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Friday 2 March 2012

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Unions protect workers rights. But as true as that statement may be it has become far more complicated then that simple tenant. Unions protect their members and they fight to uphold labour codes but at the same time some unions have been linked to organized crime in major cities, and many union leaders have been accused of corruption, or of taking large salaries while not defending the rank and file members. It's a complicated business and not all unions are the same. Some are focused and reasonable while others are unwieldily and ridiculous.

I have been a dues paying union member, and I've been middle management supervising union members and I've always had some thoughts that I occasionally shared with others, and today I'll share them with you.

The Good
There are those who will say that unions serve no positive purpose. Those who bash the idea of unions at every corner. They have obviously never seen workers abused, or they just don't care. Unions are largely responsible for current labour laws that protect employees from abusive employers. Unions often provide a voice to people who would otherwise have a very difficult time disputing issues with an employer. Having seen new, especially young, workers who are unaware of their rights as employees I truly understand how a union can provide much needed protection. And while the process of collective bargaining may not be perfect it does afford an opportunity to ensure that workers are being paid a reasonable wage for the work they provide. Well.... kind of.

The Bad
One of the issues that I have with unions is that it lumps everyone together and says they have the same skills and ability to do a given job. So lets say a union represents a group of network administrators. As long as their jobs share the same classification then they are treated as all the same, even if one of them is much more dedicated and skilled, or one of them is as lazy as the day is long. They are the same in the eyes on the union, and I've always felt that was kind of odd, and frankly insulting to the more dedicated and skilled workers.

Similarly, union protection has nothing to do with skill and is generally solely based on seniority or time spent with the company. So when protection is needed those who have been there the longest get it, while those who are new may not. The most recent example of this would be with the Corner Brook Fire Department, but it happens regularly. Skill and dedication should always play a factor in determining who maintains a job. Everyone has heard of an employee somewhere who is completely useless and actually a drain on the system and those who work around them but because they have been in the union for years they are protected and have no worries of ever losing their position.

Unions are built on the idea that it's "us" vs "them" and that generally leads to some unfortunate circumstances. Sometimes if you're not in the union and can't get in it then you're out of luck getting a job because you're one of "them". This occasionally happens in the skilled trades arena. It is this idea of "us" as a family against the word that can make for strong membership support but it can also lead to some very difficult times when contract negotiations fall through.

The Ugly
Strike. Just reading the word conjures up images of picket lines and protest signs. It happens when the collective bargaining process fails to produce a contract that employees and employer can agree upon. It can be a peaceful and rational expression of discontent, or it can be a violent mess and expression of hatred. I have never had to cross a picket line, and for that I'm happy. But if I was in a management role during a strike I very likely would. While there have been some nasty strikes that have made the news I'm certain that the worst stories are never really told.

Unions sometimes target middle management during strikes. The theory is that by applying pressure on those folks they will complain upwards and hopefully senior management will get the message. Unfortunately this is usually complete nonsense. Middle management have little to no decision making power, no job security and are generally in the worst position during a strike. They are required to work, sometimes doing the jobs of unionized employees, crossing picket lines, taking abuse from top and bottom and their only recourse is to quit. Sounds great doesn't it? So So So Solidarity!

I was unlucky enough to witness some of this nonsense while living in Labrador West during a time when both IOC and Wabush Mines were on strike at the same time. Tension was always in the air and it was not a happy time to be there. One group had their "Wall of shame" where they would post the names of management employees who crossed the picket lines to go to their jobs. It was disgusting.

Oh and then there are replacement workers. Oh pardon me, I meant Scabs. The venom, insults, name calling and vitriol spewed toward workers who replace unionized employees is beyond comprehension. It is the epitome of the "us" vs "them" mentality. There are examples of it everywhere but it is never pleasant to see or hear. I simply do not understand how you could treat another person that you don't know with such distain and hatred.

The Moral
I have little doubt that some will read this and claim that I am anti-union. Not so. I am simply against the things that make for poor working conditions all around. That includes the protection of people who don't deserve it and name calling and insulting fellow workers because they're not in your group. I believe in a workers right to collective bargaining, right to strike, reasonable job protection, safe working conditions, and a reasonable wage. It just seems that sometimes, just sometimes, things get taken a little too far.

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