This is part of The Big Picture series of posts – my attempt to explain what is happening in the world around us.
Trade Unions (labour unions) had been a puzzle to me for years: I could not reconcile their stated goal, their self-proclaimed ‘raison d’etre’, with their behaviour.
For years – while a teen, I watched my parent’s employers and their attitudes towards their employees. My mom worked for a large crown corporation – a union shop – while my dad worked for a huge, multinational hi-tech company (no union).
I had learned in school that unions were there solely to protect the employees from the ruthlessness of the employer – yet, my mom’s militant union constantly bullied her and caused her incredible stress. Even when the union was not planning a strike – there were a lot of tentions raised by them in everyday life at my mom’s work. And whenever the union ‘pushed’ the employer, the employer ‘pushed’ right back, leaving the employees stuck in the middle. It was stressful, to say the least.
Contrast that with my dad’s employer: they had first class benefits (my mom often used my dad’s ‘family member’ plan, when her own union-won plan would not cover things), they had much higher salaries (OK – so it was a high-tech company, but even their secretaries were better paid than the secretaries at my mom’s work), there was hardly any discord or any of the ‘employer-employee stress’ that was present at my mom’s work. There were family picnics and all kinds of ‘family stuff’ at my dad’s work (like summer jobs for employees’ kids, if they wanted them) that were completely unthinkable at my mom’s work.
It seemed to me that while my dad’s non-unionized employer motivated their employees with the proverbial ‘carrot’, my mom’s unionized place of work employed what could only be called a ‘double stick’ – one weilded by the employer, the other by the union.
Since then, I have worked a number of jobs – two of them unionized. I have had good employers whom I would go to the end of the world for – and bad ones, whom I would like to leave at the end of the world. And, I have started a number of small businesses which employed people – so, I guess I have had a ‘job’ as the employer, too. Yet, I must admit, that my two unionized jobs were by far the most stressful environments – way more stressful than figuring out how to meet payroll in difficult times.
So, why unions?
Of course, history answers that one – that is a no-brainer!
Yet, I cannot but think that the very reason why unions came about is also the reason why they are no longer a positive influence. It all has to do with the whole ‘Scaling up of communities‘and ‘scaling up of caring’ rant I have been on lately…
What started up as a small group to protect the rights of its members grew – and grew – and grew… until it became too big to ‘care about’ (represent) each member of the union as an individual. Just as we have seen with states, the ‘scaling up’ of any organization requires the introduction of governance structures which necessitates replacing ‘caring’ and ‘social bonds’ with ’rules’ and ‘procedures’.
That is exactly what happened with unions!
Instead of being a small, yet ’caring managable’ sub-group which represented each member, unions became a separate organization of its own – there are now even ‘unions of unions’, umberella organizations which organize the unions ‘from above’ and remove the ability of individual members to affect significantly the course of the union’s actions! In effect, the unions have now become an additional layer of highly bureaucratized management which battles with the employer’s management structure for power over the employees…
And all because the unions grew to a size where they lost the ability to ‘care’!