Lamb Weston and the Teamsters Union are set to face off at the end of January over the vote which went against them as they tried to organize the employees at the company’s Twin Falls plant. On Dec. 10, a Times-News article indicated that there is intransigence on both sides. As I said in an earlier column, I support unionization and am disappointed that this dispute continues. At that time, I commented on why management should accept the union. Now I want to talk about problems that unions have with acceptance by workers as well as by employers.
If you are not in a union, what images of them do you have? Do you recall black-and-white news photos of angry demonstrations? Do you think of smoke-filled union halls? Do you think of corruption, Jimmy Hoffa, dock workers doing nothing and connected to the mob? Do you think of overpaid union bosses and job protection at the expense of productivity and profit? You are not alone.
Unions have a problem with an image cemented in the mid-20th century. Since that time, their membership and their influence on the labor market has declined. Union leaders, once included in business discussions, today are markedly absent from the public forum. Yet the need for leverage in representing the worker has re-emerged in this era of post-industrialization.
When considering the current cries for better wages, not just in Idaho, but in the country, it appears that many employers consider their employees as only an expensive and time-consuming part of their balance sheet. As robotics and artificial intelligence take hold, every worker in every business organization will be competing against the cost of automation as the means of production.
Management organizes production; workers produce. Since the dawn of recorded history, the ability to organize work has garnered more power and compensation. Workers have organized; in guilds, co-ops, and unions, to gain just reward for their efforts. Similar cooperative organization may be more of a necessity today than it ever has been.
Profit from increasing productivity is increasing and workers are not effectively demanding more of that profit as wages and benefits. The fact is, various factions have convinced workers that it does no good to demand more compensation. Plus, white collar employees have resisted efforts to organize for their benefit.
Unions often represent only the “blue collar” worker. White collar workers used to scorn unions as being for the whiners and the less competent, but that is no longer useful. There is also the push against the closed shop; the idea that you must join a union before being hired that has resulted in right-to-work laws.
I believe that anyone who is not in management should be in some type of a worker’s organization. I would, at this point, even add supervisors and leads to that category since they are often not true management. They are the people who take the heat for management decisions and tell other workers what to do. In the NFL, quarterbacks are still in the player’s union.
Part of the problem of attracting workers to unions is the expense versus the value of union dues. Are there programs to make the workers more valuable as employees? Is there additional pension, health, disability benefits? Are the union stewards capable representatives to management? Are they problem solvers or rabble rousers? Workers need to know that a union will work to protect their jobs to the greatest extent possible or find new employment when needed.
Unions also need to re-brand themselves. They need to exhibit fiscal transparency. They need to tout the qualifications and quality of their management. They should be clear that their goal is the well being of all American workers. They should be innovative in recruiting; stressing comradeship before applying for bargaining rights with an employer. A modern union can and should be an adjunct to every American worker, and complement a competent management team as well.