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Management’s Dirty Little Secret

For obvious reasons, no company is going to want its employees represented by a tough, effective labor union. No company is going to want its employees represented by a vigilant organization dedicated to improving wages, benefits and working conditions by any means necessary. What management team would welcome something like that? And who could blame them for not?

But given the choice between having no union at all, or having a weak, ineffective, largely symbolic one-one with no stomach for a fight, one that lacks the confidence and respect of its own members-many companies have come to appreciate the virtues of the latter.

Companies have found that a union is often the perfect “buffer” between management and the hourly workforce. A union deflects a lot of stuff that would otherwise land on management. Employees who would normally take their gripes and criticisms to their bosses, now have a union to go to instead; and because most of those complaints don’t reach the stage of becoming formal grievances, or issues that require action, the union serves as an effective filter.

But more than that, the union also plays the role of whipping boy. By some weird, inverted logic, the membership will hold the union responsible for stuff outside its ultimate control. Perhaps it’s the union’s visibility and accessibility; but whatever the reason, the membership often blames it, rather than management, for any bad news that happens to come down the pike. It’s a strange dynamic.

An example: Following contract negotiations, when the members don’t get the wage increase they expect, or find out that a key benefit is being taken away, it’s not uncommon for them to blame the union. Blame the union for not getting them a raise, rather than blaming the company for not giving it to them. Blame the union for being unable to prevent losing a benefit, rather than blaming the company for taking it away. A strange dynamic..

Similarly, on the company side, a lazy or incompetent management team has its own convenient uses for a union.

For one thing, it provides a whole range of built-in excuses. The union can be blamed for every manner of screw-up. Weak managers tell their bosses that restrictions imposed by the union contract were responsible for everything from production fiascoes, to scheduling problems, to tying their hands in personnel matters. However, deep down, they know that having a union around can be a blessing. Example: When employees approach management with one of those messy he-said/she-said disputes, management simply defers them to a union rep. They pass the buck. They dump the problem on someone else. It’s one of the benefits of having a union shop.

For another, the union is there to share the pain. Take the recent landmark pact between General Motors and the UAW, which takes the administrative responsibility for the hourly health care plan out of GM’s hands and gives it to the union. Such an arrangement is unheard of.

Over the last quarter-century the UAW has lost, literally, hundreds of thousands of members. What was once, arguably, America’s most prestigious labor union has been ravaged. But along with the sheer numbers, the UAW has, unfortunately, also lost much of its credibility with the membership. To the extent that it has become not only the messenger delivering bad news, but the perceived co-creator of that bad news, the UAW has come to be seen as management’s “accomplice.”

Of course, as far as the company is concerned, things are peachy. They now have the best of both worlds: a labor union that’s too weak and fangless to do battle, but one that (as the nominal representative of the employees) is still in the line of fire, still there to take the flak when things turn sour. In a word, the perfect buffer.

And now that the UAW has been saddled with the staggering responsibility of administering the hourly health plan, the union risks moving to the next step in the declension-going from buffer to scapegoat.

Just wait until the health insurance issue hits a major snag and things turn ugly. Management is going to thank their lucky stars that they have a union to “protect” them.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net