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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 20 • October 28, 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

To Form a More Perfect Union

Modern American unions are trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. In general, the union movement has been on a steady decline in the United States — except in the public sector. The decline is fueled by changes in the basic economic structure of the country and by the many laws, protections and entitlements, which were not in place during the height of union organizing in the ’30s or before.

The union movement grew in this country based upon the transformation of the American economy from agriculture to manufacturing and heavy industry. It was also fueled by the mass production needs associated with wars, and spurred by great wealth.

This accumulation of wealth was bypassing many workers in the American economy. Fast forwarding to the 21st century, it is clear that the economy has again been transforming, migrating from an industrial manufacturing economy to a service economy, and an information and technology one.

Unions have been failing to reinvent themselves, at least in the private sector, in order to remain relevant amid these transformations.

At the height of union organizing, in the 1930s, membership reached its zenith of about 36 percent of the workforce. In 1983, membership had declined to about 20 percent. Today, the percentage of the entire workforce represented by unions is about 13.5 percent, according to Department of Labor information. In the private sector, the number is down to about 9 percent.

In a sense, unions have been victims of their own success. The union movement gave workers a sense of strength, of solidarity, and of power and ability to influence the American political and economic agenda. Previously, those abilities and that power rested with industrialists and business owners. There were no protections in place that remotely resemble the situation today — sovereign immunity applied to employers. Workers had little standing to challenge the decisions or abusive practices of their bosses.

Imagine entering a time warp and going back to New York in 1910. You would witness sexual abuse and the lack of protections against injury and illness on the job. Imagine, if you can, the unchecked racial, gender, national origin and religious discrimination that existed. Imagine the exercise of arbitrary authority to demean and intimidate employees. It was not a time to be proud of in American history. We owe the union movement a tremendous debt for making the workplace more equitable, ethical and productive.

Today, however, unions often resist change in the modern economy rather than support progressive improvement. Demands often favor seniority over performance or workplace behavior and frequently hinder innovation.

In today’s economy, making critical decisions by seniority and failing to have innovative practices in place to reward excellence is a recipe for further decline. In the long run, this will harm not only the local governments involved, but, ironically, the very unions that support these practices.

In contrast to the private sector’s decline of unions, the public sector has provided a great growth opportunity. As unions struggle to re-invent themselves, they have found success in representing about 42 percent of government employees. What a contrast between the survival mode for private sector unions and the growth industry found for unions in government. What accounts for the difference?

First, unions have become even more adept at public sector employee political action than in the past. Where better to demonstrate the connection between political involvement, donations, lobbying, etc., than in the local government agencies themselves? The list of top contributors to elective office campaigns regularly features unions. Another area concerns the fact that government is already home to a substantial number of entitlements and rigid rules or processes not found as extensively in the private sector.

Perhaps the best example is the remaining existence of 19th century civil-service concepts and practices in many government entities.

Around the country, HR professionals in government struggle to abide by the rules, and yet still strive to become more modern, efficient and flexible. The two forces contend with each other on a daily basis (see more on the need for Civil Service Reform in HR Doctor articles such as Living in the 19th Century).

In addition, many elected officials deliver a clear message to government managers. The message is often the opposite delivered in private organizations. Namely, take no action opposing union organizing. Most union representation elections are lost by unions in the private sector.

In government, without opposition and with the organizing and lobbying capability of unions, especially those representing teachers, firefighters and police officers, the result can very definitely affect a local city or county commission election, where the margin of victory may be tipped by having union support.

In an environment where opposition to organizing is stifled, and lobbying can be particularly successful, there are advantages to organizing in the public sector that extend considerably further than those present in a private organization.

Forming a more perfect union will involve action and understanding by managers, elected officials, unions themselves, and, the not-to-be-forgotten employees represented by unions. It will take managers’ understanding that poor behavior and failure to reward and recognize employee contributions (i.e., see the practices of Godzilla the Manager at constitute the union organizer’s greatest ally.

Elected officials have a role in resisting the end run efforts of some unions to work around the organization’s negotiators and appeal directly to the elected officials, who owe their constituents a long range vision of what could be. Such a vision involves executive leadership and communication.

Unions have a loud voice in communicating with elected officials — and rightfully so. However, the voice must not be so loud that it resembles a seat right next to the bank of speakers at a rock concert. It must not be so loud that it causes long term hearing damage preventing other balancing voices from being heard.

The greatest obligation, if a more perfect union is to be formed, must rest with unions themselves. They must stop being so innovation-averse and understand that they must walk alongside agency management in defining a future in which excellence is the norm and mediocrity is eliminated. It must be a future in which recognition, respect, and appreciation is the expected standard. Godzilla the Union is as dangerous to government excellence as Godzilla the Manager.

Finally, the employees of a public agency need more direct opportunities to demonstrate their loyalty and innovation in a safe, enriching environment free from inequity and poor behavior by colleagues and supervisors. Personal accountability and acceptance of responsibility for behavior and performance on the job would be a wonderful thing to encourage in a society continuing to be weakened by the retreat of these qualities.

The HR Doctor very sincerely hopes that more unions will reform themselves and morph into more perfect unions. After all, there are no good management songs. They all came from the glory days of a union movement gone by.

To paraphrase the HR Doctor’s hero, Pete Seeger, here’s to instruments that stay in tune and people, governments and unions that do likewise!

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •