October 27, 2009

Why unions need competent administrators on the other side

Dean Dad neatly explains why Southwestern College's leaders aren't even competent Machiavellian administrators. While I've occasionally heard from people that the best union recruiting tool is a horrid manager, life is more complicated. Yes, there are threshold effects of managerial incompetence and cruelty on organizing campaigns, but for an already-recognized union with plenty of duties, competence from most of management is far better, for a number of reasons:

  • Most union members--including most vigorous union members--do not want to spend their entire lives in conflict with coworkers (which most managers are, in terms of daily contact). Unions as advocates,  watchdogs, and the workplace equivalent of public defenders? That's a sustainable metaphor for what unions do. Us-Them metaphors can get people through a crisis, but not generally through an entire decade without some loss of integrity (see the great new book Staying with Conflict for more on the long game from a conflict-resolution expert's perspective). 
  • It's better to win grievances by persuading managers on most cases than be taking every issue to an arbitrator. In a large enough workplace, there will inevitably be contract violations, if for no other reason than because most managers don't understand collective bargaining agreements and there are many pressures to take short-cuts on process. Informal resolution of the vast majority of such situations is in the interest of union members, and you're much more likely to get that if the people on the other side of the table are sane and competent.
  • Competent and sane administrators are less likely to do extraordinary damage to your members. That's not a foolproof, money-back guarantee, since everyone makes mistakes (see the last point), but I'd rather save my resources and time for a handful of problems than try to address dozens of serious problems every year.
  • Competent and sane administrators can be engaged and taught how to improve relationships with the people you represent. Everyone has an ego, but I'd like to work with people where a solid majority can put aside their egos and ideas to learn how to work better. And where I might learn a thing or two in return.
  • Part of a union's job is to promote the careers of its members, and that may take them into management. Do you want managers who understand the needs of the people you represent? If you put a target on the back of every current manager, you discourage your coworkers from becoming sympathetic managers.

At this point in my career and union work, I am convinced that patience, a good ear, and large doses of self-deprecating humor are important tools of power for union leaders. Using them requires suspending a belief in the Force (which is required to believe in the Dark Side). As in all things automotive and judgmental, your mileage may vary.

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Posted in Academic freedom on October 27, 2009 11:52 PM |