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October 16, 2006
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Public Employee Unions - More or Less

About 45 percent of public employees are represented by unions. While that number has increased in the current generation of employees, the opposite trend continues in the union movement in general. In the private sector less than 10 percent of workers are in unions. That number has been declining steadily, even while public employees seem to be spending more time looking for the union label. What a fascinating phenomenon.

It is, after all, in government where unions would seem on the surface to be less powerful, less effective and far less necessary to "protect" workers. Government workers already are encased in Kevlar in most cases by arrays of vested rights such a civil service protection, legislative mandates like heart/lung presumption bills for firefighters and police. It is public-sector agencies that often have binding arbitration, open-meeting laws, public records acts, whistle-blower protections, and the far higher degree of public and media scrutiny than is present in the private sector.

It would seem that, based on the traditions and history of the labor movement, unions would be focusing their efforts on the places where the needs are the greatest and the rights are the fewest - the private sector. Private sector America is the land of the "at will" employee. It is the land with the lower wages, far less stability and security, and diminishing benefits.

The public sector is still the home of defined benefit pension plans, which are seriously declining in private industry, as well as retiree health insurance benefits and much more. Why is it, then, that the union movement is most popular in the place where it seems to be needed the least?

There is not one single and simple answer, and a short article isn’t the place to attempt a doctoral dissertation. However, here are a few thoughts on what contributes to this seemingly strange situation.

In the land of the "entitled," there is a greater urgency on the part of many employees to erect barriers against change. Sadly, unions all too often "serve" their members most by placing bear traps, mine fields and other impediments in the way of the process of innovation.

One of the best examples is the general resistance to linking pay to performance, as opposed to pay linked to automatic increases for everyone in the bargaining unit, regardless of their contribution.

An interesting phenomenon occurs when a management bargaining team raises the question of abandoning the concept of "one-size-fits-all" COLA increases in favor of providing substantially more pay for those making substantially more contributions. Immediately, the defense shields are raised and comments are made such as "we don’t trust the managers to be objective in evaluations." The purported lack of trust is a part of the defense mechanism.

The result is a labor contract tradition of moving towards the lowest common denominator of compensation based on survival and not based on reward and recognition for the very best performers.

When "same for all" is the mantra chanted by unions and that chanting goes on for generations of employees, a "culture of avoidance" becomes entrenched and is very difficult to break through.

The culture of avoidance refers to the reluctance of an elected official or council, let alone an individual manager, to want to move very far down the road of innovation if it means controversy, and perhaps the threatened withholding of campaign support.

Public employees include large numbers of colleagues in paramilitary model organizations, such as fire-rescue and police. Union membership is very high in organizations where the members eat together, sleep together and occasionally engage together in conduct unbecoming members of our species.

In these cases, the power of groups such as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is brought to bear, not to necessarily defend the true heroes, but to prevent reasonable management interventions to reduce liability. This may come in the form of resistance to the idea of drug testing, or forensic psychological screening of applicants for promotion or hire, or adopting codes of conduct which may involve restrictions on the significant amounts of money being paid for time not worked instead of pay for time that is worked.

In these organizations, of course, there is also a very great historical reluctance to even consider the appointment of senior staff from outside the organization. The exception, interestingly enough, is most likely to be found in the appointment of the department head - the police or the fire-rescue chief.

The HR Daughter Elyse is a county management employee. She recently received a performance bonus - which in most agencies would be unlikely to ever happen in the first place. The direct recognition of performance excellence with links to a tangible reward and to the very important statements, both verbally and in writing, of appreciation and commendation mean a great deal to a dedicated employee. It means that her contributions are recognized and appreciated. It means that her department leaders understand the importance of appreciating the contributions of others.

The best performing executives do not accept jobs for only financial reasons. These are the people who are needed by a particular organization more than they need to work for that organization. The difference is in the extent to which these top performers feel that their work is important and that they are appreciated. They also want to work under the supervision of a boss whom they respect and whom they know cares about their success.

Creating an entitlement environment and an avoidance culture may get a labor contract, but over time it erodes potential and prevents the organization from excelling the way it otherwise could. One of the most telling examples is the folklore concept found in many government entities of a "merit" increase.

The theory is that if you are performing in a satisfactory or higher mode, you get some kind of pay increase such as 5 percent. The reality, when you study performance evaluation content in the organization, is that the increase is not so much based on meritorious performance as it is based on an employee’s ability to remain conscious or semi-conscious for 12 full months. We might as well call it a survivor incentive instead of a merit incentive. Perhaps the entitlement models and the one-size-fits-all theory is what has transformed organizations such as Ford and General Motors from being auto manufacturers to being health insurance and retirement companies.

It is likely that the reduction in the relevance of private sector unions in or amid the changes of 21st century economics will continue to go in the opposite direction in government agencies for quite a while. At some point, however, public employers and the public itself may find that it is time to spend as much time seeking out innovation, public and private partnerships, outsourcing, regional alliances, etc., as they now spend gift-wrapping new entitlements or trying to squeeze a 19th century model into a 21st century reality.

Meanwhile, as the HR Doctor’s hero, Pete Seeger would say, or rather sing: "Which side are you on?"

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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