Saturday, December 20, 2008

Labor Unions as Villains

Back in the days when employers abused and took advantage of workers, worker organizations were a necessity. Eventually, labor unions emerged and began representing the interests of workers, equalizing them with their employers.

That occurred a long time ago, and since, and to some degree as a result, labor laws have been written that codify the fair treatment that unions once championed alone.

Over the last 20 or so years participation by workers in labor unions has declined substantially, and with good reason: The price of union membership no longer benefits the worker like it used to, because of improvements in employer attitudes, improvements in labor law, and because many states have laws in effect that allow people to work in union shops without joining a union if they so choose.

So, a good argument can be made that unions have outlived their usefulness; they are dinosaurs of a bygone era. Naturally, union bosses and organizations do not want to admit this, and will not just go silently into the night. But their excesses are becoming increasingly unpopular, and the idiocy of some of their practices is beginning to wear thin on the population at large.

For example, as mechanization moved into the auto industry the United Auto Workers managed to get automakers to agree to a monstrosity called a “jobs bank” to protect the jobs of its members who were no longer needed to build cars. This surreal mechanism pays nearly 15,000 workers to not build cars while receiving wages and benefits that often reach $100,000 or more per worker per year. They show up at the plant, or sometimes do volunteer jobs outside the factory, or even take classes, but they don’t build cars. All of the costs of this absurdity help raise the cost of every vehicle produced by the Big Three automakers, adding hundreds of dollars to the cost of your vehicle(s).

Some of the problems involve what are referred to as “work rules.”

Work rules often, perhaps mostly, are designed for the sole purpose of preserving union jobs and creating even more of them. They are often inefficient and even counter–productive.

Here’s one example: My stepfather-in-law once worked in a unionized chemical firm. He told the story about the repair crews employed there. The crews had a supervisor, a pipefitter, an electrician, a carpenter and one other specialist. When a problem arose, a repair crew was dispatched. Didn’t matter whether it was a plumbing problem, an electrical problem or whatever specific problem might exist, a repair crew was assigned to fix it.

He said that often four of the five crew members sat on their butts while one of the others fixed the problem. Why pay one guy to work when you can pay five for the same work?

When the problem was more than the electrician could handle, if he needed someone to hold wires or handle tools, for example, the others were not allowed to assist, another repair crew was summoned, and the two electricians fixed the problem while eight people twiddled their thumbs.

Another incident reported by a manager told of a situation where his company had neglected to ship 100 screws needed in a shipment. He received the call, and instead of being able to go to the bin where the screws lay in labeled bins, he had to find the supervisor wandering the floor in the 5,000 square foot plant, wait for the supervisor to get around to him, tell him what he needed, wait until the supervisor located someone in the correct labor category for getting screws out of storage bins, wait for the worker to count out the screws, then wait while the supervisor found an employee who was in the correct labor category to package the screws, and then deliver the package not to the supervisor, who was standing there, but to the shipping department, where another employee prepared the package for shipment.

A task the manager could have performed by himself in 20 minutes took three hours and involved five people.

Now, there are situations where people who are knowledgeable about wiring need to be the ones doing wiring work because of safety concerns; and there are situations where a worker who knows one screw from another needs to be the one who gets the right screw for the customer, but not in every instance, and maybe lots of instances. But a work rule is a work rule, and if it keeps nine people hired instead of eight or six, then from the union’s point of view, it is a good rule.

Part of the Big Three’s problems are caused by its union, and along with management inadequacies, this one has to be fixed, too.

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