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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Unions from all angles

I seem to be on an accidental quest to explore all sides of labor disputes.

Back when I was on the MPIRG board of directors, there was a union organizing campaign among our employees. It was a little contentious for a while, and resulted in some stressful board meetings. So I got a glimpse of things from the management side.

Then, of course, I went to work for AMFA Local 33 and did battle with Northwest Airlines for a couple years. (The members went on strike just as I was leaving for grad school, and the company brought in replacement workers. The union has recently formally ended the strike through an agreement with the company, and a few people have gone back to work.) So I definitely saw the union side of things.

And now, it turns out that there's a union organizing campaign on at my post-graduation employer. So I guess I'll get to see the employee side of things; it's not clear if the vote will take place before I get there or not.

I'm actually inclined to think that a union wouldn't be a good idea for GAO. Union representation is needed for workers for whom the "market" fails or who suffer employer abuses. In my opinion, this turns out to be mostly blue collar professions, like janitorial staff and aircraft mechanics who don't make an appropriate wage without a union. But for white collar professions where there is strong demand and workers have the ability negotiate for themselves (and the ability to go elsewhere if they aren't satisfied), I think it's just an unnecessary intermediary between employer and employee. And union rules can get cumbersome after a while, so if they're not necessary it's best to go without. Also, judging from the press release, it sounds like dissatisfaction among some employees with the pay-for-performance system is the driving force behind the union campaign, but I don't think that moving away from pay for performance is necessarily a good thing. Measuring performance is a very slippery thing, so it could be problematic, but in general I accept the idea that raises and promotion should be based on how well you're doing. Anyway, we'll see how it all plays out, the representation battle may be over by the time I start.

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