The Tragedy of American Unions

I grew up on the edge of the heavily unionised South Wales coalfield in Britain. It was self-evident there that the union was a good thing and critical to mine safety as well as ensuring the miners received a fair wage. By that time, the mining industry was state owned but the previous 100 years or so of conflict between mine owners and miners and their union was fresh in peoples’ minds. Now we live in a world where unions are greatly diminished in power and influence over the political process throughout the world. Globalization has eroded their bargaining power and their membership has plummeted, nowhere more than in the USA.

The difficulty arising from this, is that it leaves only government as the counter-vailing power to set against corporate dominance. And it means that there is little in the way of a strong force to fight for equality and good working conditions. Even in companies that have no unions, they are often motivated to pay well and treat their workforce decently in order to avoid their workforce unionizing.

My problem with unions especially in the USA, is that they have not adapted to the modern world. I spent much of my career negotiating with unions and have many friends in the union movement. But they have lost sight of the fact that they have a strong interest in the productivity and profitability of the businesses whose workforces they represent. They have no concept of their ability to kill the goose that lays the golden egg or in which their members create value. So I hear of businesses driven to the edge by union work rules that are frankly insane. And the unions in one of the plants I helped manage drove into closure by their obstructionism at the cost of 6000 jobs.

In the US, I hear of union officials rigging overtime and other pay so they earn five or six times what their average member earns. I hear of situations where hiring is skewed to union friends and relatives. And this translates into a lot of animosity towards unions from people whom you might think would support them. In the recent failed recall election of the Governor Walker of Wisconsin, the polls suggested that large numbers of the families of union members voted against the recall of the anti-union Governor. What’s up with that? Well, I guess union arrogance and economic illiteracy played a role. Did they learn anything? I doubt it.

I also heard recently of a plant employing 1000 employees working two 12 hour shifts for a total of 2000 jobs. The company thought 12 hour days were a bad idea and so offered the union the chance to move to three 8 hour shifts and hire another 1000 employees. The existing employees would lose overtime but five 12 hour days are not good in the long run. The union laughed at the proposal and refused to allow it, though it would have reduced unemployment by 1000. The union makes us strong? No wonder they are politically discredited.

I wonder therefore if there is any union in the US who think like I do? Who think maybe we should say to employers: we want as many jobs as possible paying our members and others recruited, say $40,000 per year, the equivalent of the wage that built the American middle class, that would pay for schooling and with good health care. And we will work with you to create the work rules, the workforce skills and attitude to make this economically viable. As Chinese wage rates rise at 16% a year there are tremendous opportunities to rebuild American manufacturing, but not with insane work rules that cripple productivity. This would it seems to me, be a way to achieve higher level solutions to union/management conflict.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs: union founders at a time when unions were illegal in Britain. They were transported to Australia as convicts as punishment. See:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict History, Economic Conflict, Uncategorized, US Political Conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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