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Humans, or Machines? April 25, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Labor unions are an interesting creation.  Few human institutions of the last century or so have drawn such distinct battle lines across society.  Here in the U.S., they continue to divide us into two groups: those who feel that unions provide a necessary base of power for employees who otherwise have little with which to bargain, and those who feel that unions have outlasted their usefulness and that they take away a corporation’s ability to structure its business as it sees fit – especially in countries that now have comprehensive labor laws on the books.

Regardless of the side you take, it should be clear that certain industries and companies do more to deserve the good and bad that comes from unionized employees, while others exist quite well without them.  To this day, there is a heavy bias toward manufacturing and trades.  Not so much with professions like engineering, law, or medicine (though they do have professional societies that adopt such a role in certain situations).  And some companies, regardless of their particular product or workforce, have dedicated themselves to the well-being of their employees to such a degree that the idea of a union would seem out of place.  There are examples of these even in typically unionized industries scattered around the country.

But times are tough these days. The ongoing struggle between the State of Wisconsin and its public labor unions is a prime example of how employers – whether public or private – are feeling the pressure to reduce costs, at any cost. However, though it’s quite easy to observe (and predict) how unions react when faced with cost-cutting measures, there is a more subtle reaction to an employer’s move to improve throughput or productivity, i.e., to produce more at the same cost.

There is a unique tension between the employer and the employee when a union is involved.  Essentially, the union exists to promote the employee as a human being against the employer’s treatment of that person as a mere machine that can be turned on or off at will.  When an employee believes he has been abused, the union can put the full weight of the workforce behind him to negotiate with the more powerful employer.  But what happens when the employer actually wants more “humanity” from the workforce?  In other words, what is the union to do when the employer wants individual employees to think on the job?

I’m not certain that there is a ready-made response to this, since it is a relatively new way of doing business – for both sides.  Historically, especially in manufacturing, employers wanted workers who could perform exactly the tasks required, in the minimum time, with little or no oversight.  Needless to say, the conditions under which these tasks were done left quite a bit to be desired.  Unions were a natural means of recourse.  However, more modern industries, and their commensurate complexities, require employees who are able to thoughtfully analyze their jobs and identify ways to make them better and more efficient.  The person performing the task in question really is the one most familiar with the “art” of completing it well.

But where does that leave the union?  If employees are encouraged to become more autonomous, and able to work with fewer rules governing their behavior, it would remove some of the negotiating “tools” like work-to-rule that the union depends on.  Indeed, it would make such employees more like their craftsman forebears, rather than the industrial “wage slaves” that populate the union pamphlets.  Of course, the employer must be willing to pay for this “thinking workforce”…