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Occasional ramblings by an anesthesiologist/mother (and sometimes her husband).

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Where Unions Go Wrong

I will not deny that in my current position, I owe a lot to the work done by my union. There is a good deal of myopia, however, in unions in general which has been brought to the forefront by two recent stories - one local, one national.

SEIU, to name one union, used to run a series of commercials in which they talked about all the quality services that one receives from their members. The implication was that only their members would provide this level of care.

This is, of course, unmitigated poppycock. Unions are not guilds. There is no level of skill or testing required for membership in a union. If you have a pulse and a job in the appropriate business, you are a member of the union, whether you want to be or not.

Unions also have a tendency to judge people simply by the amount of time they have been working a position, regardless of their skill. The result is that they will be tenacious defenders of both the hardworking and the blatantly incompetent.

This is the argument put forth by a group called The Center for Union Facts. They posit that unions are the greatest problem facing schools today. They are putting forth a contest to find the 10 worst teachers in the nation, and pay them each $10,000 to leave teaching. It is, of course, a mere publicity stunt. $10,000 will not entice anyone to leave lifetime employment. The problems they call attention to, however, are real.

I would not call my own union the greatest problem facing my district. There are far greater problems facing my particular district. Not the least of these problems is the fact that even without the union, my district could not remove incompetent teachers simply because they do not have the warm bodies with which to replace them. Over the last two years my building has had two full-time positions open up mid-year. Each took several months for the district to fill. Under these circumstances, the district pretty much won't get rid of someone unless they're actively posing a danger to the students (and even then they're pretty slow).

The bottom line, however, is that unions suffer from myopia. They fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. Teachers unions have pretty much come out against every single new idea in education that has been posited during my adult lifetime. Like the guilds of old, they have turned into a defender of the outdated -defenders of dinosaurs in the midst of an ice age.

Many unions also become territorial - to the point of becoming a protection racket. Some unions think that certain occupations belong to them. Case in point, a conversation between Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Professor Kevin Hardwick this morning. 140 volunteers want to donate their time and services to put up a $20,000 swing set which they will pay for. The local AFSCME union president is threatening to sue because it will "take work away from his members."

This man is willing to sue volunteers for doing something that he wants to be paid for. This worldview that certain unions think that they alone have the right to do whatever they do belongs in the mafia, not a free society. For one thing, without the volunteers, this work would not be happening in the first place - there would be no work to deprive people of. Most importantly, this sort of thuggishness will cause people to cease doing business with you entirely.

Case in point - MacWorld New York. When the expo used to be held in New York City, the union crew was almost a running joke. Let's say you shipped an entire booth worth of stuff across the country to be present at the expo. It would arrive at the loading dock. The union crew would charge pretty much the same to move it across the hall that you paid to ship across the country. There were many reasons why Apple pulled out of the expo. That may or may not have been one of the major reasons. Nobody, however, missed having to pay that extortion money.

It is nearly a cliché at this point to discuss the effects of the automobile on the horse and buggy industry. The gist of the story is that one industry was obliterated, but dozens of others sprung up in its place, and uncounted other industries prospered. Change is hard. Change requires people to be flexible. In the short term, people get hurt. In the long term, however, progress can help everyone who is willing to participate in it.

Unions have painted themselves into a corner. They have become the defenders of people who want to pretend it's still 1951. Guess what: it's not. You can't expect lifetime employment anymore if you have no skills. There are plenty of careers and job paths that are growing. Skilled craftsmen, for example, will always be in high demand. You can build things anywhere. They have to be installed and serviced here, however. Nothing will change that. Pretending that people can keep doing the same thing in a changing world will not get you anywhere. The world will continue to change, and you will be left behind.

There is still a place for unions in this changing world. If they want to find this place, however, they need to perform a craniorectal extraction stat, and tell some of their members to grow the fuck up and join the 21st century.

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