John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Those whom the union protects
Managers are often at fault and, goodness knows, you've described the lawyers' dilemma and unfortunate response accurately. I fear you may have left one culprit off the list. (Intentionallly?) Local unions (or Guilds, if you believe that confers a more precise image) play a significant role in protecting under-performers as well.
Having worked as both a dues-paying member of the Newspaper Guild and as management scum, I know the perspective on each side of the aisle.
Unions do protect under-performers. They have to. They exist to represent the interests of their members, and their members are interested in not getting fired. To protect all their members, they are obligated to defend each. And I don’t object to that. Having a union establishes an orderly, open means of dealing with personnel issues.*
I also think that blaming the union for problems with unsatisfactory employees is too easy for managers who have abdicated their responsibilities. Contracts include probationary periods, and a manager who is paying attention can usually tell within those first six months whether an employee is up to the job. Even after that, there are procedures for evaluating. The real difficulty comes with an employee who has been sub-par for years and who has merely been shifted from one desk to another (often with the ultimate threat of transfer to the copy desk) — there’s always the temptation to deal with a problem by moving it elsewhere.
By contrast, when something that management really cares about happens — an employee is discovered to have been stealing money, to have sexually harassed other employees, to have plagiarized or fabricated, to have downloaded pornography into the company computer — action is swift and certain, and that employee finds himself out at the curb.
It’s just that competence in doing the work doesn’t engage the same sense of urgency.
*I concede that it’s not always easy for managers, as on the occasion when a lawyer for the Newspaper Guild contrived to persuade an uncommonly dim hearing officer that I was not qualified to testify about the duties of a copy editor.