Saturday, March 27, 2010

Caveat Lectores on Local Union Leadership

Today is nostalgia day since it is the first anniversary of Caveat Lectores. I found this in the archives, and it still has a message to deliver.

It has long been my belief that a union local should run more like a business and less like a neighborhood club much like we used to form when I was a kid. We would get together; decide to form the club; compete to see who would be in charge; then fail to get anything done largely because of lack of organization until everything fell apart. A few months later, we would begin the process all over again, learning nothing from our prior experience. I do not know about modern kids operate, but that was the way it was in my neighborhood.

My first experience with a local union copied that formula and traces of it seem to still exit today in too many labor organizations. Frequently, union leaders are fueled by an emotional need to do something they cannot accomplish within the traditional corporate framework. This motivation is fine, but it does not provide a formula for success.

Four decades ago, when I suggested an approached to union leadership from a business oriented decision making model, I was viewed as a management shill embedded into the union movement to make it fail. It has taken many years to make myself enough of an expert that some will actually listen to me.

Most of my experience is with fire unions (IAFF), but the same problems exist in most union atmospheres. In fact, the firefighters are frequently more sophisticated in their approach than police and general employees. Teachers are their own world that is unfathomable in many instances. My deceased wife was a teacher’s union leader. Because of that, I have never made any attempt to enter that realm. It would be like herding cats.

The international parent organizations provide generic union leadership training to the members based on their specific model. Each model is frequently similar to the rest, but public and private unions are quite different in their approaches. Public sector bargaining is all about politics, but many union leaders on all levels do not really understand how to make political action work. The rank and file tends to hate political involvement and will avoid it if possible. The traditional private sector approach is about strength in numbers and perceived power to overcome management. That approach has been ineffective for decades.

Actual training sometimes seems to be an afterthought that is easily pushed aside for the more pressing issues of the moment. I have seen many programs begun but not finished or continued. Remember, there are no qualifications necessary to become a local union leader except for 51% of the vote or internal political appointment. There is a reason there are so few real labor education programs in this country.

Getting votes takes tough talk and bravado. Being perennially successful requires staying in office and applying skills required of a manager. Management skill and competence is an anathema to most union members.

As long as a union leader can get re-elected, he can successfully fail as long as he or she can convince enough members into believing the failure is attributable to management abuse of power. Having the actual skills necessary for the right kind of leadership is not considered essential. In fact, it can be counter productive.

Many local union leaders are part-timers or retirees being paid little or nothing. They have full time jobs, families, hobbies and many interests competing for their time, skills and energy. They would rather pick up the phone and call the attorney, make a complaint about something and hope the attorney can fix the problem. If things work right, they get a bill they can afford to pay. A union leader has a problem explaining to the members why he spent money just talking to the attorney. The members like to see the action that caused the expense.

We lawyers and other experts are out there willing to do the battles for a price. Unfortunately, winning a battle does little to win the war that will never end. Seldom does a local union leader really understand that the war never ends. Many go from crisis to crisis hoping that winning an isolated battle will cause an end to hostility.

The union leaders who endure over time are the ones who understand the process of conflict and understand how to mitigate the hostility into a controllable but chronic divergence of economic and management philosophy. The others burn out, lose interest or are defeated by their members or management.

Few are the times when litigation, arbitration, ULPs, impasse procedures or anything related to enforcement of labor law produces a truly positive result greater than to get what was already lost but at great expense. That is the nature of litigating anything. It is necessary to keep an impure system seeking purity.

You cannot litigate a contract. You must negotiate it. Too many labor leaders and their attorneys seem to think they can litigate management into submission and agreement. The rank and file members support that philosophy until the money runs out.

And Oh yes, have a nice day?


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