Union Suits and Ties

Lest you think that doctors, engineers, and judges have it easier than their blue-collar brethren, the Wall Street Journal reports that such professionals are in fact a quickly growing class of unionized workers. (Subscription required.) For many, the move is defensive: Unstable job markets bring the need for collective action.

Organizing white-collar workers can be a challenge, but a shared voice can be stronger. Are unions the right model? Or should we, perhaps, look to the guild?

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  • Anne Vantine

    I cannot think of a more positive trend for the future of all workers (especially white collar workers)! I think that many mistakenly equate unions with high salaries, and don't consider some of the more important quality of work life issues that created the need for unions in the first place.

    How many of you work at least 60 hours a week these days? How many feel that they will not get ahead in their workplace, or in their industry if they do not kill themselves by working way too many hours each day and each week? Unions fought less than scrupulous employers for our right to have more reasonable working hours, and now we willing "donate" many extra hours to our employers for no additional compensation (let's face it, can you ever use up all of the "comp time" you have accrued and still do your job?). Even most job postings now read "overtime may be required" which is just vague enough so that when we find out that a lot of overtime is actually required, we cannot say that we were misled.

    Having been management, and now union in the exact same job, I have a new appreciation for the value of organizing. I love my job, and the industry that I work in (the Arts) so it was really easy for me to spend almost all my time at work trying to do an increasing better job, and to contribute to the success of the organization. So as "management", I willing worked easily 70 hours or more per week. Now, in the same job that I was doing before, I am in the union--I am not allowed to work more than 40 hours in a week or overtime rates apply. Therefore, it is up to my management to make a busines decision as to whether the pending work is urgent enough to be worth compensating me with overtime pay, or whether whatever it is can wait a day. I don't feel taken advantage of, and they can control their payroll based on peak need. AND, guess what? I'm more organized, manage my time better, and am more effective and efficient because I have to be (and I'm not exhausted)!

    I was just beginning to enjoy the extra time I had to spend with my husband in my new 40 hour per week union job when unluckily for me my husband passed away (neither of us were even 40 years old yet). I can't tell you how much I would give to have back even half of the extra hours I was donating to my previous employers in order to have more time with him now that I know his time was so short. I now have a reasonable work life and no one to share it with. I include this bit of information not for pity, but to say that for me, the value of the union is to protect me from myself and my propensity to overwork at the expense of living.

    The other big value is the security it provides from capricious firing. I worked for an employer who was bought and sold 4 times in the 6 years I worked there. Everytime a new owner came in, pink slips went out. While I was lucky enough to survive each round, it was a very stressful environment to work in, and I was constantly censoring myself so that I didn't alienate the wrong person and risk finding myself in the next round of pink slips. I don't how many business decisions were made during this time without complete information because people were afraid that they may present something that the new management may not want to hear. Because the new owners didn't own us long enough to get to know who the valuable employees may be, the rule of thumb became don't make waves. Now, while I still need to be diplomatic and professional, as a union employee, I speak my mind--I am not afraid to point out the flaws in the plan in order to work with management to find solutions so that the plan can be a success. While I appreciate this as an employee invested in the success of the organization, I think that management benefits when viewed less as labor/management conflict, and more as honest collaboration amongst professionals (I am an advocate for redefining unions so that they think of themselves as a professional guilds rather than unions as way to promote a more positive image of themselves to management).
    Granted, as with typical organizations, there are always problems that need to be addressed and worked on, and unions are no exception. For example, there is a definite and ugent need for better PR to improve the image of unionism, and to dispel the fear and distrust of unions that many people have. Unions can serve a valuable purpose if looked upon as an opportunity rather than as a hindrance. Collaboration is a key element that both sides need to be willing to embrace if the relationship between the two is to be successful.

    Too many managers buy into the negative stereotypes of unions without ever looking into why they exist, what they have done for the workplace historically, and what value they can bring to the table when not considered an adversary. Many of today's labor laws are a result of unions fighting not just for the rights of themselves, but for the rights of all workers. It is horrifying to see those rights so easily given up by people who do not appreciate the struggle that prior generations went through for this generation's work rights. It is up to unions to promote a better image, and management to be more flexible and to look for the advantage that such an arrangement could provide. I'd love to see business schools do a better job of teaching their graduates about unionism -- more as a managerial philosophy than a historical artifact used to explain Human Resources and labor law.

  • Martin Tibbitts

    I cannot think of a more negative trend for the future of the American White Collar worker. The continued ease of outsourcing Thought makes it so that America needs to focus on building value, not cementing an old model.

    Martin Tibbitts

  • roger fulton

    Baloney. Recent press reports indicate that Doctors and lawyers had the highest gains in salaries in the United States for 2004. Go peddle that clap/trap someplace else. Nonsense, it's like trying to convince me that Arabian sultans are trying to unionize because their 400 wives are trying to abuse them.