Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Those whom the union protects

Last week, when I argued that the mores of newspapers protect stars and incompetents, a number of responses in public comments and private messages went along this line:

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.


  1. I once had an editor tell me that people don't get fired for incompetence; they get fired for stupidity. At that particular newspaper, the competent reporters and editors eventually left for other papers. Could there be a connection?

  2. Having worked in a guild-protected company for a number of years, I can say I never saw any good come of the union's dealings with management or vice-versa. I never heard a union member offer suggestions for improving performance or doing more than what the contract required. And I never heard anything but antagonism from management about union issues and tactics.

    Strange that we bemoan the loss of quality in one post and then opine that unions protecting the underperformer is fine, too; but we can't have it both ways.

    If you're good at what you do (and are therefore marketable) you don't need a union; you need a headhunter. And if you're mediocre or bad at what you do--or just plain lazy-- union protection is priceless.

    While I'm not politically conservative, my opinion of unions is this: If you want a say in how a company is run, buy stock in it.

  3. Anonymous: clearly you have never worked someplace where no union has ever penetrated. Management is not going to do one lick more for an employee than they are forced to, because their priority (like insurance companies, to mention something on our minds lately) is to the shareholder. Why do you think unions exist? If no one forces employers to pay living wages, they won't do it, and you can be as marketable as you like: the market won't pay you what you ask if others just as good as you work for less, and they will. If you all get together and say, no one works for less than X ... you're a union.

    Sure, some places are non-union, but they only get people to work for them by either hiring those no one else will, or treating their employees as well as union shops if not better.

    Not saying unions are perfect, but anybody who has read any history of labor relations has to know that they are necessary.

  4. This is a little off topic because I never worked in a unionized newsroom, but I was present as a newly minted manager in one when two of the company's all-time slackers tried to organize retail ad sales and news, respectively, under the Teamsters, one right after the other. The whole mess resulted in an NLRB finding against the newspaper for, among other things, an alleged threat by the owning family to shut the paper down if the employees unionized. I don't know if they really made it, but obviously, the NLRB bought it.

    Oner knee-jerk reaction on the owners' part was forcing the managers to go through management training, provided by one owner's alma mater, on their own time. Such matters as progressive discipline, documentation of poor performance and follow-up were taught. After about 10 weeks of this, I mentioned that during my interview for the editor's post I'd just received, the then-managing editor told me that my fundamental job was not to rock the boat, because people were trying to make it to retirement, and because the owners would never back you up if really tried to change things. When I mentioned this to the lecturer, silence reigned. I found out much later that the company was still clearing 20 percent a year even though circulation was plunging.

    My point here is that the union wasn't the problem, but instead, a symptom. The slackers tried to organize to guarantee themselves lifetime employment (both left, one after apparently being caught working in a furniture store on company time). The old-line managers created the problem by carrying these doofuses indefinitely, with self-preservation their only goal. The problem, in the end, was their own dereliction. The guy who told me this stuff in my interview was, incredibly, promoted, only to be cashiered in a public, humiliating manner once the industry collapsed. BTW, this was the Twinkies recipient referred to in my bosses posting.

  5. Ridger:
    You're dead wrong in your assumption about my work history; I've worked for years in both union and non-union organizations.

    And you're dead wrong in your generalization about non-unionized companies taking kneejerk advantage of good workers. Good quality companies have always sought good quality workers because that helps produce good, quality products and services. And that helps the bottom line--of course.

    You say it yourself--unions are part of labor history. If they are so essential, why are they dying out? It's because progressive management will offer incentives for workers to do better and do more--something a union contract inhibits.

    Sure if we all say "nobody works for less than X," for most human beings that translates into: "If I make the same as Joe the Plumber, I'm not going to sweat one more piece of pipe than he does. We're paid exactly the same"...and therefore the performance standard becomes mediocrity. In many labor unions, "work ethic" becomes an oxymoron.

    And the two words that strike terror into the hearts of labor organizers are "merit pay." Why be afraid to pay the guy who does a great job more? Why be afraid to financially penalize the slacker?

  6. Before this exchange turns into a pro-union, anti-untion tit-for-tat, I'd just like to take a moment to remind readers what the point was in the original post and this follow-up. Whether there are unions or not -- and I've received favorable comments from colleagues in both union and non-union shops -- the fundamental reason that incompetent employees stay on the payroll is the failure of their managers to carry out their responsibilities.

  7. The last sentence in your follow-up is a whale of a generalization if I ever heard one.

  8. So unions are at fault for protecting under-performers and management is at fault for not removing under-performers. Hey, sounds like it pays to be an under-performer! Why work for a living?

  9. I'd submit that when an incompetent employee stays on the payroll, not only is it the fault of managers who fail to carry out their responsibilities, but it is also the fault of the worker's union, which, in acquiescing to incompetence, fails to honor its contract with the company. Incompetence violates the very nature of the "work for hire" foundations of the labor/management relationship.

  10. You lost me here: "Unions do protect under-performers. They have to."

    And so, I say, goodbye to unions! With that bit of nonsense now conventional wisdom among the intelligent classes, we can see how far we have come in this country.

    Unions are the authors of their own demise. Good riddance.

  11. Very late to the party, but I had to make this observation ...

    Management at the unionized paper where I work rewarded an incompetent manager by giving him a plum (dayside) copy editing job -- at no loss in pay -- instead of taking the golden opportunity to fire him. Thus, a lousy boss becomes a lousy coworker.

    Background: Three excellent, openly declared candidates from the nightside copy desk had each completed a one-week tryout period for the dayside opening when the M.E. announced that Lousy Manager would be filling that job. (Lousy Manager's candidacy for said dayside opening had been known by nobody except the M.E.)

    It wasn't the union contract that was "inhibiting incentives for workers to do better and do more," Anonymous (10:22 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. on Aug. 11).