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It’s the Unions, Stupid! …

I read the National Post today while riding my exercise bike through my virtual Wii world.  It made me laugh out loud (the Post, not the Wii world, which is actually pretty cool).

The Post today had no less than three anti-union rants!  On page A16, Mathieu Roy called unions “parasites of Western societies”.  Ouch.  On page A17, Paul Andrews blamed the downfall of the Big Three auto manufacturers on unions.  He wrote: “The legacy costs associated with inflated union wages and pensions are the reason that the Big Three are not profitable.”   [I'm not sure that argument is very convincing.  Perhaps the fact that the companies continued to produce gas-guzzling SUVs that no one wants anymore, while paying their executives hundreds of millions of dollars for making those kinds of decisions might have something to do with it. Check out an alternative opinion by Harvard economist Richard Freemman here] .  Then on p. FP15, Ray Pennings blamed construction unions and labour laws in Ontario for discouraging innovation in the Ontario construction industry.  I’m not sure if he means the innovation of the construction workers, or the developers, or someone else.

So, unions are evil and the cause of most economic problems.  We’ve heard all this before from the National Post, so that’s not what is funny.  As Elaine and Jerry would say, yada, yada, yada.  What I found funny was the juxtaposition of  these arguments against unions with the article by employment lawyer Howard Levitt on page WK1.  Levitt was advising employers on the best way to layoff non-union workers in these difficult times.  His advice, summarized was this:

Don’t be generous.  Pay people less notice pay than they are actually legally entitled to.  If an employee sues to recover what they are legally entitled to, hire him (or some other lawyer who is “not anxious to settle”) to fight hard in order to send a message to other employees that they are in for a fight if they have the gall to demand what they are legally entitled to.  And, for God’s sake, don’t offer to pay the employee’s lawyer’s excessive costs if you settle the case later.   That way, the employee may actually be financially punished for trying to press for the severance they were legally entitled to.

Come on, you have to admit that’s funny.   The inference in the first three opinions was that workers (and society generally) would be better off without unions, presumably because unions are not needed to protect workers.  The Levitt piece then demonstrates that, without unions, employers can dismiss employees without actually paying them what they are legally entitled to, because few non-union employees have the resources to take on their employer in court.  Mr. Levitt’s advice is to treat employees unfairly (by giving them less than what a court would order the employer to pay), and dare them to file a lawsuit!

Don’t forget that the people the employer terminates are usually friends with the people who remain employees.  Studies show that important reasons why people join unions are for better job security and because they perceive management is treating workers unfairly.   So, if you are an HR manager, a good way to get the remaining employees to consider a union is to be a prick to the employees you do layoff.  That’s also a good way to acquire a reputation as an unfair employer.  But, as Mr. Levitt notes, it might save you a few bucks, as long as the legal fees aren’t more than the cost of simply paying the employee the proper notice pay in the first place.

I laughed all the way to the finish line (where I won access to a new Yoga move!)


3 Responses to It’s the Unions, Stupid! …

  1. Ryan Reply

    November 26, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Sounds like Levitt…

  2. Charles Reply

    November 27, 2008 at 12:57 am

    Same old, same old. Those big bad powerful unions. Yet if it the union’s fault they why is Magna laying off- last time I looked they are not an union shop. There must be a way to blame the worker. Well have no fear the FP and the others will find a way.

  3. Alex Reply

    November 29, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Is it safe to say that the unions and management brought GM down? I was reading another online argument, where one contributor accused the union of being the barnacles on GM’s ship, slowing it down enough to be uncompetitive. Another contributor then commented that the barnacles aren’t the ones steering the ship into the rocks! I know that this is a simplified view, but there is a kernel of truth in it. I would never suggest that unions are not necessary. But at some point, management and unions are going to have to redefine their adversarial relationship and acknowledge the benefits of having the unions as a ‘strategic partner’. As GM and its employees are painfully learning, what’s best for me isn’t always best for the organization- and what’s best for the organization CAN benefit everyone. Maybe GM will learn this IF they survive the next year.

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