There was a time when unions were necessary. Really necessary. The power of the individual employee was overshadowed by the employer. The guy with the moist money usually won the battle. And unions came in and leveled the playing field.
That was the good side.
Now, unions are more and more getting to be obstacles. I am sure there are a number of unions that still serve their members well, protecting them from excesses and abuses by their employers. But a great many are doing more to hurt their members than serve them well.
Here’s a prime example: the hotel workers at Disneyland went on strike recently. They have worked without a contract for about two years. The main sticking point – healthcare insurance. For years, Disney has paid the entire cost of healthcare for these workers, with no contribution from the employees. Disney wants them to contribute. The union says no.
Now, details are in order. The union says that the new healthcare package “could” reach a total of $500 a month for a family of four. That sounds horrifically high. Or does it?
In my household, I pay about $300 a month for just the two of us, my daughter and I – and that’s on the lower cost plan. And that’s about average. Had there been another adult, that would have shot up even higher. So $500 for a family of four isn’t all that much more.
Now, I understand that they aren’t used to paying it, and that it might be a burden in some cases. And perhaps the solution is to find something in between. But healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, and the majority of folks with health insurance have to pay for it.
But instead of working to find a solution, the union has instead chosen to have their employees undertake hunger strikes at the gates of Disney. Frankly, this is a very poor calculation on the unions part. They would be far better off getting back to the negotiating table. The strike won’t make a difference. Meanwhile, they’re still collecting union dues every month – and still no contract, two years later. What, exactly, is this union doing for the employees?
In my last day gig, we saw another union do something similar. The Transport Workers’ Union went into a couple of casinos to unionize the dealers. Here’s the first problem – it’s the Transport Workers’ Union. What do they know about the casino business or dealers? The answer is: apparently not much. They went into the Wynn and unionized the dealers. Two years later, no contract, no new pay agreement, none of the grievances had been resolved. But they collected their union dues. Then the union went into Caesar’s to do the same thing. And then had no contract. And no resolution. But they were getting their dues.
In both of these cases, the union saw an opportunity to capitalize and get their foot in the door of a casino – and collect some dues. But they had no experience in the dealing business. They had no idea how things worked. They just saw a way in. And the employees are still paying.
As I said before, I know there are some unions that do a good job for their members. And they are to be commended. But I think there are far too many who are more concerned with filling their coffers than helping their members. The protection that unions once afforded can now be had by just about anyone. Lawyers who have a chance at going after a deep-pocketed abusive employer are a dime-a-dozen. They’ll take their cut of the settlement and be off to the races. And the employee will do fine as well.
Not that unions don’t protect their members. In fact, in some cases, they protect them all too well. More than once, I have seen union employees who have violated company policies get off scot-free once the union was involved. And when it comes to protecting jobs?
Again, in my former gig, I had worked to get new flat-screen TVs installed in the area I worked. Now I’ve installed flat screens, including running all the cable through walls. Took me, all told, about an hour and a half for one screen.
This particular installation took three weeks. Why? Because of all the unions involved. First, the drywallers had to come out and cut a hole for the electrical installation and for the mount. Then the iron hanger had to come out and put up the mount. Then the electrician came out and ran the AC power for the TV. Next came the video cable guy, who ran the video cable to the location. Once all the cable was run, they had to call the drywaller back out to finish up the ceiling. Then the painters. Next, they needed Teamsters to lift the TV into place. Once in place, the AV guy ran the cable to the TV, but then had to wait for an electrician – TO PLUG IT IN! Each stage took a day or two, and thre was anywhere from a 1-3 day lag between each step. The Av guy couldn’t plug anything in, the drywaller couldn’t paint. The day they were plugging the TV in, we had an AV guy at the top of a ladder waiting for an hour – because the electrician took lunch earlier than he usually did. Then, the electrician arrived, and the AV guy went to lunch – before connecting anything.
These guys were all playing by the union rules. All of them. Yet what should have taken 1-2 days took three weeks. And there were four more to install.
Of course, the question is – what happens to the dues? How much of it is actually going to help members and how much is going into the unions coffers. Much is likely focused on lobbying activities, on twisting the arms of some politicians while greasing the palms of others. But what is that getting the members. Like taxes, it’s not about how much you’re paying. It’s about what you’re getting for that money. If you aren’t getting your money’s worth, you need to start asking a lot of questions.
But, I do think there are some uses for unions, and one could help in a much different area – immigration.
The major reason there is still illegal immigration into this country is that employers are hiring illegally. The jobs are here, so they come to work. Unions could be a great resource to employers to ensure that the people being hired are here completely legally. In fact, they could offer their services to non-union houses as well – for a higher fee. The idea is that they could act as a clearing house for workers, ensuring that when someone was hired, all legal checks had been performed. Employers who hired someone from a union could be confident that the background checks had been made, and if there was a problem, it fell on the union, not the employer. In this way, the union is protecting the employer AND the employee. The jobs are going to folks here legally, protecting American jobs.
Would there be potential for abuse or misconduct? Yes, but you’d know where to go first. And union employees would be the first to make a complaint about someone who wasn’t supposed to be there.
Unions have lost a great deal of relevancy in the vast majority of industries. They don’t have the clout they used to have, or the power, regardless of what some folks might think. They are a voice, but not as loud as they were. But they do have a place – it’s just not the same place it used to be.
Meanwhile, they need to be careful, in this economy, of what they complain about. When they start complaining about having to pay for benefits, when most of us are struggling to pay ours, it falls on deaf ears. When folks are already paying $250-$400 for their benefits every month, they aren’t going to feel too badly for the folks that have paid none. Sure, it’s a matter of perception. Sure, they may have made pay concessions to keep those benefits without paying for them. But none of that will play to the average wage earner who watches a huge chunk of their pay go to healthcare benefits.
In the end, unions need to find their relevancy again, if it’s possible. But it shouldn’t be about protecting employees that underachieve. And it can’t be walking off the job because they don’t want to do what most wage earners already do.
We’ll be right back.