The Union will get You the Respect You Deserve

Another common refrain in organizing campaigns is that the union will get you the respect you deserve. The company will be forced to respect its employees if they band together as a union. It is a great way to rally the troops without having to actually promise anything. “United we stand, divided we beg,” the organizer will say.

It would be great if respect was that easy to gain. We go around for years getting pooped on by our company until we have a vote one day and then – boom – we are respected. Sounds appealing, huh?

The facts? Most organizers who use this line want you to confuse fear with respect. They are saying that if the union is voted in that the company will fear the union – or at least fear what the union might do – and treat employees with more respect.

Think about that organizer’s formula. The company will treat you better because it is scared of what the union might do. This formula may have worked back in the day. Unions used to be able to shut down entire industries on a whim – they did it too. Violent strikes were not uncommon.

In that environment – especially if you were a monopoly and could afford to make concessions like in the automobile, steel or airline industry – you just rolled over and passed the cost onto your customers. Then the world got flat.

Not to downplay the violence and intimidation that happened in the heyday of unions, but it turns out that there are forces that are much more violent and intimidating to employers than any union. Like competition from all corners of the world.

When you are struggling for survival, the threat of a strike or some bad PR doesn’t really get your attention the way it might have in the past. Look at Ford, GM and Chrysler for good current examples of this. But there is a whole graveyard of companies – many of them unionized – that were squashed out of existence by the forces of the world market over the last 25 years.

Unions know this lesson better than anyone. It turns out that the restrictive work rules and
unwieldy bargaining and dispute resolution process common to most union contracts are uniquely effective ways to make an employer uncompetitive in today’s marketplace. Even with wage and benefit concessions, these companies tend to get hammered when market conditions get tough. They just aren’t nimble enough to take on the world.

In today’s flat economy the threats that worked decades ago are useless: unions know that a struck company will either find another way to get its product to customers, replace striking workers or go out of business. Either way the union loses a bunch of dues paying members.

Unions aren’t feared by companies. While it remains true that companies don’t want a union any more today than they did 20 years ago (maybe even less), that is not fear of what the union might do. It is fear that their competitors will eat their lunch.

If a union was truly interested in earning the respect of a company it would help the company eliminate inefficiencies, develop new ways to work and help it open new markets. It would work as a partner. Unfortunately unions are stuck in the past, remembering the good-old days and only interested in slowing down change. That is why they are going extinct.

The best way to illustrate this point is through a clipping file. You can find hundreds of articles describing the fate of unionized companies that could not survive in a competitive market.