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Self Serving Unions

Entry 1312, on 2011-07-07 at 10:49:51 (Rating 3, Politics)

A friend of mine who is - let's not beat about the bush - a far right nut job, sent me a cartoon today which criticised unions. To tell the truth I couldn't watch it all because it was so ridiculously biased and obviously political, but I think it is still worth discussing what possible validity the criticism might have anyway.

So what are the common criticisms of unions? First there is the claim that unions are run by corrupt officials who are entirely interested in advancing their own careers at whatever cost to the union members or its opponents. In other words they claim the union is good for neither the workers nor the employers.

Then there is the claim that unions protect incompetent employees and stop the reasonable process the employers might otherwise use to remove them. Again the result is claimed to be that everyone (except the allegedly incompetent employee presumably) loses.

And finally there is the idea that unions do indeed protect their members but by working against employers the economy as a whole is damaged and (yes, you guessed it) in the big picture this is not good for anyone.

So in summary it seems that the political right see no positive role for unions at all. It's an interesting idea and one which has become more common as neo-liberal economics has become more prominent, but is it true?

Well first of all anyone should be prepared to admit that there are almost certainly unions where the people in charge are corrupt to some extent. After all, is there any type of organisation where a certain percentage isn't affected by corruption? I'm sure that if you look you will find corrupt political parties, corrupt businesses, corrupt churches and corrupt organizations of every other type. I've never seen any statistics to indicate unions are any more corrupt than anything else, and statistics (and any real facts) are generally conspicuous by their absence from right wing political debate.

A similar argument applies to the claim that incompetent employees can be protected by unions. The real question is not whether this happens at all but how often it happens and to what extent. Everyone deserves the right to defend themselves against allegations of incompetence and in an uneven power situation like employee versus manager the support of a union seems perfectly fair. I'm sure there are times when someone who perhaps deserves to lose their job is kept on as a result, but I'm equally sure there are times when the opposite happens and people falsely accused of incompetence are helped.

But even if we concede the points above do unions damage the economy and therefore disadvantage everyone, including employees, as a result? Again the answer is maybe sometimes but probably not in general. Reasonable economies - and by that I mean those which make some attempt to balance factors such as simple economical outcomes, prevention of environmental damage, and some attempt at fair and equitable work conditions - should encourage balance in the power between employers and workers. If that balance swings too much in favor of the employer then sure the business involved might do very well, but often at a cost to the employee. Naturally the balance can occur too much in the opposite direction as well if unions get too strong.

So really it's all about appropriate balance. No one (or at least very few people) wants a world where unions have too much power but they should also want to avoid one where unions (or employees through other mechanisms) have too little. Whatever your opinion on where that balance is the idea that unions are inherently bad or are always corrupt or always support incompetent workers, is just stupid and ignorant and generally motivated more by far right political dogma than any genuine reflection.

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Comment 1 (2922) by SBFL on 2011-08-09 at 11:55:35:

"I'm sure there are times when someone who perhaps deserves to lose their job is kept on as a result, but I'm equally sure there are times when the opposite happens and people falsely accused of incompetence are helped."
Hmmm, so in this scenario two things of note:
1) You assume the number of times an incompetent (or even worse) employee keeps his job IS EQUAL TO the number of times a competent is accused of being otherwise. On what basis exactly?
2) You completely fail to mention the occasion were the incompetent loses his job and the competent keeps his. Where do the unions play a part in this outcome, I wonder?

"Reasonable economies - and by that I mean those which make some attempt to balance factors such as simple economical outcomes, prevention of environmental damage, and some attempt at fair and equitable work conditions - should encourage balance in the power between employers and workers." - Completely agree, which means unions working with (not against/for) employers, and employers working with (not against/for) unions. For this to happen is is important both are 'fair and equitable', as you say.

"So really it's all about appropriate balance." - Also agree.

It's just a shame that the teachers unions in NZ don't aspire to this. They continue to protect the incompetent and fail to reward the hard workers.

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Comment 2 (2925) by OJB on 2011-08-09 at 22:09:23:

I didn't actually say I thought the numbers were equal. I wouldn't like to try to estimate the numbers without a survey of some sort, and even then it would be difficult to quantify. What I said is I am sure the problem occurs both ways and people deserve protection against unfair actions by management. I'm also unsure of the other situations you mention but they're not really relevant to my point anyway.

So we both agree there should be balance in the power levels between workers and management. Great! Unfortunately I think we might differ on where the ideal balance point would be.

How do teachers unions protect incompetent teachers? Is this really a widespread problem?

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Comment 3 (2928) by SBFL on 2011-08-11 at 10:36:33:

The other situations are relevant in the context of your post. Where does a union situate itself in the case of a known incompetent member under fire. I don't believe all take a hard line, some can be reasonable, depending on the circumstances. But it is important to not cherry pick.

Yes you are right we agree there should be some balance, and I would hope the law ensure this (with unions playing the role as advocates for their members in most cases), but for sure we will disagree on the level.

I didn't go into detail of the teachers as it's been well documented in the past year or so - national standards, no performance pay etc. Seems the govt is winning at the moment and this is good for children, but someway to go yet.

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Comment 4 (2929) by OJB on 2011-08-11 at 12:37:01:

Agreed, as I said in the original post, there will be situations where union action might result in an incompetent person still being employed but the opposite also happens. And as I said in comment 2, it's difficult to quantify these two situations.

The law is set by politicians with political agendas. By changing the law the balance between the power of employers and workers can be changed. Clearly it has moved far in the favour of employers now. It's probably time it was moved back a bit.

Wow. So you think implementing a policy which is bad for education is something which should be rewarded? And you think that teachers who are good at paper work and looking good to their managers instead of teaching should be rewarded? And you think the government is winning? And you think that would be good? Wow. Are we even talking about the same thing?

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