My father was a manager for most of his working career, and he had the opportunity to work with both unionized and non-unionized workforces. To say that he loved contract negotiations would be like saying that he loved the hip replacement surgery that caused him months of discomfort. Both are painful, can make you feel like giving up and can promote thoughts unhealthy for this blog. Yet, he survived both and came out on the other end a better person. Better? With his new hip, he can now swing through a golf shot without shooting pain down his leg. With his experience with unions, he found out that he was much happier working in a non-union environment, much to the chagrin of his very pro-union father and brothers (or, my grandpa and uncles). What does this have to do with the UAW Principles? Well, I'll tell you. As I progressed through my HR career, I decided that I needed experience managing in a unionized facility in order to beef up my resume. My father told me not to do it - that I'd be miserable. I told him I'd be fine, that I'd treat employees at the union facility with respect, honesty and compassion. I was under the impression that the Golden Rule applied everywhere - Treat Others as You Want to be Treated. Guess what I learned? I was wrong. While there were very many great employees, both union and non-union, that worked at the union facility where I managed, some of whom I still consider strong friends, I found that working with union leadership tended to be a lose-lose proposition much more often than win-win, or as it often happened during my time, win-lose. At a very basic level, the relationship cannot help from being adversarial most of the time - Unions want to get more for less, and companies want to give less for more. Once one side compromises more than they think they should have, it becomes a win-lose, and the relationship sours. Win-win was always the buzz word in grad school - and I've tried to utilize that win-win strategy in everything that I do in life. Win-win does not work with union leadership. It simply doesn't. If a company gives, the union will gladly take. If the company asks for something in return, it is fought with ferocity through a grievance process. The UAW seems to be trying to move away from this inevitable relationship with its printed Principles. The issue, as I see it, is convincing long-time union members to embrace these subtle changes in UAW vision, while convincing managers used to fighting with the union over every management decision to accept this paradigm shift by the UAW as a fundamental truth and not just a play on words. This will be a long blog, because I plan to discuss the Principles and Preamble in detail, so I apologize in advance. I don't have this blog pre-written, so I'm typing as I go on this very personal subject for me. However, I believe I know where I'm heading with this blog - that union leadership has failed once again to see the writing on the global wall. Unions belong in the past, as the 73% decline in UAW membership since 1979 clearly demonstrates. Writing a set of Principles proves that the UAW has finally taken notice about the realities of business in the 21st Century. What they don't get is that it's already too late to try to change the image of the new UAW. Business is no longer national, it is global, and unless it makes financial sense to build a product or conduct a service in America with a unionized workforce, companies are going to go where they can get more for less. It is not always fair, and it may not be in America's best interest for companies to move jobs overseas. However, who ever said that business was fair?
In its Preamble to its UAW Principles for Fair Union Elections, the UAW states:
"The UAW of the 21st century inhabits a global economy, therefore, the union must be fundamentally and radically different from the UAW of the 20th century. In the context of global competition, the only true path to job security is to produce the best quality products and services for the best value for consumers. In order to promote the success of our employers, the UAW is committed to innovation, flexibility, lean manufacturing and continuous cost improvement. Through teamwork and creative problem solving, we are building relationships with employers based upon a foundation of respect, shared goals and a common mission. We are moving on a path that no longer presumes an adversarial work environment with strict work rules, narrow job classifications or complicated contract rules. The UAW seeks to add value as advocates for consumer safety, energy efficiency and green technologies."
From a company or management standpoint, this first half of the Preamble is unarguable. This is the most truthful statement that I have ever read from the UAW leadership, and it shows that the UAW recognizes the challenges it, and companies, face in the 21st Century. The Preamble continues:
"Just as the UAW has embraced fundamental change, we call upon the business community to also change. They can demonstrate their openness to change by agreeing to the framework established in these principles.
The current federal framework under the National Labor Relations Act does not protect the rights of workers to freely decide whether or not to join the UAW. Unlike a truly democratic election, there is vastly unequal access to the electorate. In many cases, employers use explicit and implicit threats of loss of jobs or benefits if workers support a union. Screening job applicants to weed out potential union supporters, mandatory anti-union meetings, firing of union supporters and threats to close the facility are tactics used to create a climate of fear. Community-based business organizations employ explicit threats that would be illegal if they came directly from the employer. Employee attempts at redress are futile due to lengthy delays and a lack of penalties. A free, democratic election cannot take place in a climate of fear.
The UAW invites employers to endorse these Principles for Fair Union Elections. If employers abide by these Principles, we will respect the choice of the workers whether or not they choose to join the UAW."
From a company standpoint, this second half to the Preamble illustrates that the statements in the first paragraph were written merely for show. The union’s real agenda is easily understood in this second half. Any business would be foolish to embrace this second half, as this clearly is written in support of the Employee Free Choice Act, which stands for everything but freedom and democracy (see my previous blog!). The tactics of fear that the UAW accuses companies of committing are vastly overblown. While I am positive that there are cases where each of these tactics have been used, I am also equally convinced that most companies want employees - all employees - to be accountable for their job requirements and work performance, that they be flexible, that they work together towards a common goal and that are honest, hard-working and overall good people. Companies want to be able to communicate with employees without accusations of conspiracies or incompetence. Community-based business organizations are another word for local chambers of commerce and other chapters, such as The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), who have a very keen understanding of what ails companies and offer suggestions for improvements. The UAW would have you believe that these are faceless, emotionless and greedy harbingers of doom who align with a company viewpoint in order to get richer. Anyone who has served on a chamber of commerce or been a part of a local community-based business organization will tell you that they are made up of many people just like you and I who want to do what's best for all, not just the few. Finally, the UAW "invites" employers to endorse these Principles. Is it an all or nothing invitation? Are you asking a non-unionized employer to sign some type of statement agreeing with these Principles? I cannot for the life of me think of any employer who would sign these Principles based on what is written just in the Preamble. I now go on to the Principles, with my thoughts following in parentheses ().
1. The right to organize a free trade union is a fundamental, human right recognized and respected in a democracy. (The wording seems strong and instantly puts me on the defensive - if I don't agree with this, does this make me a communist? A socialist? Something other than a human not recognizing a fundamental human right?)
2. Employees must be free to exercise the right to join a union or refrain from joining a union in an atmosphere free of fear, coercion, intimidation or threats. There is no free choice if a worker is afraid of losing a job or benefits as a result of his or her choice, or is intimidated into making a choice not of one's own making. (Who defines what is fear, coercion, intimidation or threats? Does talking about a company's global competitiveness regarding safety, quality, production, delivery, efficiency or cost metrics constitute a threat if you are informing employees during an all-employee meeting of facts? There is no guarantee of employment that any company can make with certainty - does the UAW wish for companies to not discuss the business strategies with employees?)
3. Management must clearly articulate that if workers choose to unionize, there will be no negative repercussions from the company. The UAW must clearly articulate that if workers choose not to unionize, there will be no negative repercussions from the union. Both the company and the union will negotiate in good faith, and any failure to reach agreement will not be caused by bad faith negotiations. (So this states that a company cannot decide to move its operations if it becomes clear that it cannot compete globally? Would that be a negative repercussion?)
4. Management will clearly articulate that it does not promise increases in pay or benefits if workers choose not to unionize. The UAW will clearly articulate that it does not promise increases in pay or benefits if workers choose to unionize. (Yep - can agree on that one.)
5. During the course of a union representational campaign, employees will have the opportunity to hear equally from both the union and management regarding this issue. There will be no mandatory meetings of employees on the issue of unionization unless the UAW is invited to participate in the meetings. Written and oral communications must be equal. The union must be granted the same ability as the employer to post campaign materials. (Will the UAW pay the employee's wages during the times that they are meeting with them? How do you determine that written and oral communication is equal - time allotment? Equal slides in a PowerPoint? What if the Union has more slides than the Company, or vice versa. Who makes the determination as to equal?)
6. Management will explicitly disavow, reject and discourage messages from corporate and community groups that send the message that a union would jeopardize jobs. Likewise, the UAW will explicitly disavow, reject and discourage messages from community groups that send the message that the company is not operating in a socially responsible way. (So, if a local chamber of commerce determines that it can't draw in new businesses because of a pro-union environment, it shouldn't share this with the community, who count on business expansion for growth? Does the UAW then not favor determining the root cause of an issue unless the root cause is favorable to the UAW? How does the UAW, or a community group for that matter, define a company not operating in a socially responsible way? Whose standards of social responsibility are we benchmarking?)
7. Both the UAW and management should acknowledge that the other party is acting in good faith with good intentions. Negative and disparaging remarks about the union or the company are not appropriate and not conducive to a spirit of mutual respect and harmony, and will not be made by either party. (What if one of the parties is not acting in good faith with good intentions? Is one side supposed to lie? How does a party know that the other party is acting in good faith with good intentions or not?)
8. Any disagreements between the UAW and management about the conduct of the organizing campaign, including allegations of discriminatory treatment or discipline relating to the union campaign, will be resolved immediately through an impartial, third party. (Again, if either party disagrees about the conduct, it immediately goes to a mediator or arbitrator?)
9. The democratic right of workers to freely and collectively choose if they want to form their UAW local union is the workers' First Amendment right. A secret ballot election incorporating these principles is an acceptable method of determining union representation if principles two through six have been adhered to, and if there is no history of anti-union activities. The parties may select an alternative method on a case-by-case basis that reflects the best process for demonstrating employee wishes. If the parties cannot agree on specifics of the procedure, an arbitrator may decide. (Makes it seem as if the UAW is saying they don't need the Employee Free Choice Act as long as stipulations are met. This is not the case. The unions, and the President, want the Employee Free Choice Act signed (again, see prior blog). Who determines anti-union activities? Does an all-employee meeting discussing negative metrics meet the definition of anti-union activities? Does disciplining an employee constitute anti-union activity? Way, WAY too general of a statement...)
10. If employees choose to unionize, the employer and union will engage in collective bargaining to achieve an agreement as soon as possible. The goal will be an agreement that takes into account the employer's need to remain competitive; the dignity, respect and value of every employee; the importance and value of full employee engagement and creative problem solving; and that provides a fair compensation system. The employer and the UAW commit to full information sharing and joint creative problem solving. The employees will vote on whether to accept the agreement. Disagreements between the union and company will be discussed in a respectful manner. If no agreement is reached within six months of recognition, the parties may mutually agree to mediate and/or interest arbitration to resolve any outstanding issues. (The most intriguing word in this Principle is "may". What if both parties don't mutually agree to mediate or take it to arbitration? The wording implies that the parties may do this, it doesn't instruct that this will occur if no agreement is reached. What is the alternative?)
11. The UAW pledges that if the workers choose union representation, the union as an institution will be committed to the success of the employer and will encourage our members to engage in the employer's successful achievement of its mission. The UAW and the employer will work together in fulfilling the mission of the employer. The UAW embraces a performance-based and participatory culture where the union contributes to continual improvement of processes and shared responsibility for quality, innovation, flexibility and value. (I can't argue with anything here - I actually believe this to be a very proactive statement. Of course, I'm left wondering if the union would work with the company to terminate a problem employee who is not meeting performance expectations? Wouldn't it be fulfilling the mission of the employer to have 100% of its employees meeting performance expectations? Who sets the expectations? Would the union leadership really accept shared responsibility for a failure, or accept responsibility for an employee not meeting performance expectations?)
I promised that I didn't pre-write this, and I didn't. As I look at the last Principle, it gives me hope that the UAW might actually understand and accept that good business means good employees, both management and union. I have not had the opportunity to work with many union leaders who actually believe this last Principle, but there are some out there who understand that a business is only as good as its employees. My personal belief is that most employees are protected by so many state and federal employment laws (rightly so) that there really is no need for union representation. Good companies pay their employees well, or they are not able to remain competitive and they lose those employees to other employers. I believe that bad managers and supervisors cause employers to become unionized, though this may change if the Employee Free Choice Act is ratified. Most employees in the United States are not unionized, and the majority of those employees value working in an environment where their work performance and contributions are individually recognized with salary and promotional opportunities. The only real advantage that I see in unionizing in the 21st Century is for seniority purposes, and that advantage only helps those employees that have been employed the longest. Seniority often fails to recognize the contributions of those employees without as much seniority, and tends to stifle opportunities for advancement or position change more than it helps. Seniority oftentimes also prevents employers from keeping its best employees in times of layoff. In Principle 11, the UAW states that it would work with the company to achieve the successful achievement of its mission. Wouldn't keeping your best employees help achieve this mission? If this is the case, and the union can no longer offer seniority protection, then what can a union actually do for an employee? The answer, as the UAW knows, is not much. Unions are a relic of the past. The Principles would have been a welcome change twenty years ago, and may have helped save thousands of jobs throughout the United States if accepted by membership. As it stands, the Principles are probably a case of too little, too late for the UAW, especially if the Employee Free Choice Act fails to become law. Can't union leaders understand that their time to fade into the sunset has come (and gone!)?