Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Problem with Unions

Oprah, in typical fashion, has brought to light a fabulous new movie: Waiting for Superman. (Trailer below) It highlights several problems with our education system and how they are negatively affecting our youth. From the fact that our current student body will be more illiterate than the last generation, to the fact that our students are increasingly testing lower while their confidence is getting higher, to so many more issues dealing with teachers and parents, etc. Then, there are the unions.

Believe me when I say that I will be doing a full write-up of Waiting for Superman the moment I get my grubby little paws on either a movie ticket or the disc through Netflix - love Netflix. But, I wanted to take a moment and talk about Unions.

I come from a state where Unions - at least for the most part, as it's a big state - are sort of rare. Growing up I didn't even understand what a Union was, honestly. All I really knew about them was that Sally Field really, really wanted one. Now, I say that I come from an area of the country where Unions were sort of shunned, as we were an at will state and most employers would just go hire somebody else if you tried to unionize. However, I also have the unique advantage of having been in a Union. And, let me just say...

Unions = #Fail

Having a Union is sort of like having tenure at a college. When a professor has tenure, he or she is afforded certain advantages. One must have 'just cause' - which can be interpreted in a myriad of ways in some cases - to be terminated from your job. Being in a Union provides tenure-like protection against being fired. You are guarded by rules and guidelines put in place by the Union through negotiations with the employer. You never have to deal with management, in a perfect world, and are rarely in serious trouble of being let go.  

Advantages to be sure. Those that work in Unions typically get paid at least 11% more than those not in a Union doing the same exact job. Their hiring and promotion procedures are determined more by those that get promoted than by those doing the promoting. You typically get more time off and work shorter shifts for greater pay when working with a Union. Benefits such as medical and dental are typically negotiated to be better as well.

Though, to be fair, life is not all rosy with a Union. Labor forces must follow these Union rules as well. If you are the young, smart upstart, learning quickly and doing your job impeccably, you might as well slow down or change jobs, because it could very easily be 5-10 years before you have an opportunity for promotion. Also, you pay the Union out of every paycheck, whether you like the work they're doing or not. But, the biggest issue is when your Union goes on strike. If you want to enjoy the benefits of you Union, you must also enjoy the time when everyone is out of work, because your stewards are negotiating with the employer.

But, back to my problem with Unions, though you've probably already guessed it: Everybody keeps their job. Everybody! (Yes, that is an over-exaggeration. Not everyone remains employed, but most do for the most part.) It is so difficult to be reprimanded, written up, or terminated when under Union protection that even the laziest, most incompetent employees can remain employed. The ones that could care less about the job they're there to do are the ones there the longest. It breeds a culture of people that feel overly entitled to a shorter work day, extra money, and the ability to skate around trouble. 

And, in some industries, this might not necessarily be a problem. In retail situations, or really any situation where one is engaging in capitalism, consumers can simply choose not to hire or patron an establishment where those working are lazy, incompetent, and overpaid for simply being there. If you know the plumber does a bad job, then hire someone else. There are resources online now where you can look up businesses and see customers' reactions to the services provided. 

But what about our school system, fire department, justice system, medical system, etc.? What happens when you're dealing with a police force that is tenured? What about teachers that don't have to worry about being fired for doing a bad job? In my own experience, I recall a few individuals that could care less about the reason we were helping kids in trouble and more about the swag. The sheer amount of vacation time one can accrue in some Unions is so unbelievably ridiculous as to be laughable. One guy I worked with literally only worked 9 months out of the year. The other 3 months were spent on vacation due to the vast amount of vacation time he received. Likewise, he really didn't care too much for the job. 

And, it's frustrating hearing about situations like this, because we have no choice in the matter. What about the educator that is 'tenured' by the Unions and doesn't get terminated despite ever-lowering test results by his or her students? What is the bigger tragedy: that someone is out of a job or that a generation of children are becoming illiterate?

I think it is fantastic that Unions are able to get a better wage for their members. People work hard all day and very few of us get paid enough for doing so. We scrimp and scrape by and save what we can, and it just never seems like some of us get ahead financially. Better healthcare and vacation time and sick leave and bereavement all mean that we are more content clocking in and clocking out everyday. But...what about the flip-side of those benefits? Are we really okay with having subpar employees creating subpar education, justice, healthcare, and safety systems? We're really just fine with having a Union employee getting paid thousands of dollars more per year to do half the job of a non-Union employee who has to work their ass of to get ahead? 

What do you think? I see the benefit of Unions, but I'm not sure their downfalls outweigh the benefits. Let me know your thoughts via Twitter, email, or a comment below! 

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte


10 comments:

  1. I apologize in advance for my very LONG response...

    I work in education and I agree that there are problems (huge problems) with our education systems (yours, the US, and mine, Canada) but I think that laying the blame at the Union doorstep is actually an oversimplification of the issue. Yes, there are shitty teachers, on that we are agreed. However, I think the problem is not only with Unions but with educational institutions (or higher education, which I work in) being run like corporations with big bosses who don’t really see or address the problems as they arise. I’ve worked as a student advocate, helping students file claims against teachers; I’ve worked as a teacher; and as a learning strategist. Each position has shown me a lot about how an institution is run, and it isn’t pretty. A teacher can be fired, regardless of the union, if the management follows the proper steps. It may feel like bad teachers aren’t fired because of unions, but in fact, bad teachers are often not fired because of poor management/supervision/lack of involvement in the actual job of ensuring quality education, be it in the hiring process/trial period and in long term job retention. Often, especially in higher ed, in the eyes of management, funding and research are more important than quality teaching and that has nothing to do with unions.

    Teachers make terrible salaries for what they have to put up with and the government has no interest in investing in education in order to attract new teachers to the profession. Young teachers who start out with enthusiasm often become jaded quickly because they are constantly hitting up against a brick wall. Teachers work long hours (not really getting 3 months off, especially if they are good teachers and doing the mountains of prep work required, particularly for engaged or new teachers) and deal with such a wide array of problems, for which most of them are not adequately equipped or trained. And yet, I see teachers doing amazing things for their students, devoting countless hours and energy into their craft. For many (not all) teaching is a labor of love.

    I’m not a Union fan. I agree as unions can lead to lazy, apathetic employees. But until governments and our society actually value education and the teaching profession for their true worth, I think that unions are a necessary evil.
    And there are so many other factors to consider in terms of parental roles in education, societal expectations of teaching, class issues and school districts, pedagogical policies, resources, no child left behind, and… etc, etc…

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  2. I have to say that I also grew up being totally unfamiliar with unions. I was, in a way, indirectly taught that unions = fail. For all the reasons you give here.

    However, I then married a union man. For many years I still thought unions=fail. Despite my husband's opinions to the contrary. In order to maintain domestic bliss I basically stayed clear of any conversation about unions - similar to the don't talk politics or sex rule-of-thumb - except in my family we DO talk politics & sex! :) Because I avoided talking about unions, I never really learned much about them despite my husband's membership.

    However that has changed over the past few years.

    I haven't seen/read/viewed anything about what Oprah has said about this or anything about this movie. I'm only speaking from my own experience. And obviously, that's not representative of the whole union spectrum.

    But from what I've experienced and observed, I can say that being a member of a union does not mean you won't get fired/laid off nor face performance reprimands. In the past few years, I've known several of my husband's fellow union members have both happen to them. And it appears to be increasing in frequency. He is in a trade union (construction.) But I've also talked with union members of a service organization and have learned about performance reprimands and layoffs there as well.

    And on the flip side, I've seen and experienced the effects of "at will" non-union employment. Many of my professional colleagues (service and management) are now working extraordinary hours with no extra compensation. And in many cases a lot less compensation. They are afraid for their jobs and no longer feel like they have the ability to "say no" to the extra stress and demands placed on them.

    I can't speak about unions in the educational system at all. Just my experience in construction and service industries. I've found myself very surprised that my opinion of union automatically = fail, has changed. I never would have thought I'd change my opinion on that.

    Normally, I stay wide and clear of these types of conversations as it's like talking politics and sex. There's never a totally right answer and people can be very passionate about their opinions/experiences in this area. But I felt moved to comment here. I'll have to check out this movie.

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  3. I have to say that I also grew up being totally unfamiliar with unions. I was, in a way, indirectly taught that unions = fail. For all the reasons you give here.

    However, I then married a union man. For many years I still thought unions=fail. Despite my husband's opinions to the contrary. In order to maintain domestic bliss I basically stayed clear of any conversation about unions - similar to the don't talk politics or sex rule-of-thumb - except in my family we DO talk politics & sex! :) Because I avoided talking about unions, I never really learned much about them despite my husband's membership.

    However that has changed over the past few years.

    I haven't seen/read/viewed anything about what Oprah has said about this or anything about this movie. I'm only speaking from my own experience. And obviously, that's not representative of the whole union spectrum.

    But from what I've experienced and observed, I can say that being a member of a union does not mean you won't get fired/laid off nor face performance reprimands. In the past few years, I've known several of my husband's fellow union members have both happen to them. And it appears to be increasing in frequency. He is in a trade union (construction.) But I've also talked with union members of a service organization and have learned about performance reprimands and layoffs there as well.

    And on the flip side, I've seen and experienced the effects of "at will" non-union employment. Many of my professional colleagues (service and management) are now working extraordinary hours with no extra compensation. And in many cases a lot less compensation. They are afraid for their jobs and no longer feel like they have the ability to "say no" to the extra stress and demands placed on them.

    I can't speak about unions in the educational system at all. Just my experience in construction and service industries. I've found myself very surprised that my opinion of union automatically = fail, has changed. I never would have thought I'd change my opinion on that.

    Normally, I stay wide and clear of these types of conversations as it's like talking politics and sex. There's never a totally right answer and people can be very passionate about their opinions/experiences in this area. But I felt moved to comment here. I'll have to check out this movie.

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  4. Cheers for bringing this up. I work in education also, though in my organization we aren't unionized.

    I can't think of a documentary I thought was more important than this one. I've heard the director interviewed on quite a few right-wing radioshows(Intellectual ones not the bombastic ones) and I find it is awesome the way the two parties are starting to work together on an issue without any malice. I really think we are entering an education revolution in this country, even if it was slowed a bit today by the resignation of Michelle Rhee.

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  5. My employer employs tens of thousands of people. With such a large corporation I can't even imagine what we would have to put up with if we weren't unionized. I'm in full support of unions especially if the alternative is to have to face your massive corporate employer all by yourself. In this company it is the agenda of management to eliminate jobs--performance bonuses are often based on how much "fat" is trimmed. If I get in trouble with them for making one of an infinite number of mistakes and their immediate response is to fire me, I want a union rep sitting down with me while they try their best at aiming and dropping the axe.

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  6. As an educator (NOT in the K-12 school system, although I am certified), I can attest that NCLB has done far more to hurt our nation's students than the NEA. If you're not "highly qualified," even if you've got years of experience and are good at teaching, you're fired. There's no such thing as having 13 college science courses under your belt and teaching high school science anymore--you have to have 13 physics courses to teach physics, 13 chem courses to teach chemistry, etc. Which means you wasted a lot of your time in college on esoterica that most high schoolers will NEVER ENCOUNTER.

    And you are legally required to spend massive amounts of time preparing your students for standardized tests. Time that could be spent making the course interesting is instead wasted on annoying "trick questions" and how to bubble-in.

    When I did my student-teaching, I had all these great ideas I'd learned about in college for making the content more interesting--and I couldn't use them, because the school was afraid that there wouldn't be time to do the standard garbage that the state has you waste time on. So I had to use the same old-fashioned lectures, even though studies prove that's the LEAST effective way to teach your average kid.

    Add annoying helicopter-parents who are terrified of of teenagers learning that life isn't all sunshine and dewdrops, and of *gasp!* NEW THINGS IN SCHOOLS!, and it's no surprise the public school system is failing as badly as it is right now. Any attempt by the NEA or the teachers themselves to fix things lately has met with major resistance.

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  7. Jay, I don't think many have a problem with unions serving a purpose like that to protect from genuine wrong-doings. I think the problem is when they protect poor workers at the expense of the quality of the product. In this case the product being educated students.

    Believe me, there are times I wished we were unionized. Our pay starts out about 8-10k lower than public school teachers, we work more hours, we have to take turns as janitor and security because there is no janitor or security, and it is harder to get and keep your job than it is in public education. (Well, technically we are public education. Charter School, free to attend but there is a lottery)

    However, we have a completely different education philosophy. One that works very very well, and is proven year after year in test scores and scholarships to the best universities.

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  8. Let me start by saying that I am writing this from a place of love, Fire Lyte. I am a union employee and had no say in the matter. I am a Firefighter and a Paramedic and I consistently have to defend my "overpaid" union position to the undereducated public. I only work 8 days a month. Yes, that sounds great, doesn't it?? But wait, there's more to that. My shifts are 24 hours long and very often do not allow for sleep. So those 72 hours in between shifts is required for much needed recovery. Let's also take into consideration that there have been many occasions where I have had such horrific experiences that three days was hardly enough time to recover emotionaly from my shift. Often I use personal time to keep myself educated so I can do my job more effectively. Most people think we sit around just waiting for the next call. Most definitely NOT the case. There's keeping our vehicles stocked, working properly, keeping ourselves trained, keeping the building cleaned and general upkeep as well as community education and service. I've worked the last three Thanksgiving Days (and will work the next four) as well as the last two Christmases. Our profession knows no time of day or night nor holiday. We don't get to stay indoors in snow or hurricanes. I helped shovel a path through three feet of snow to a doorway while a young woman cried over the potential loss of her baby. I have a million stories that would make your hair stand on end - the grass is definitely not greener on the other side of the fence. Six years of college education and I make roughly $46,000 a year. Cushy, ain't it?

    Make no mistake that for the most part the men and women of the fire and police departments do these jobs because we LOVE them. The public in general treats us like servants - like something to sneer at. I am happy to report that bad seeds are fired. Yes, it may take longer, but it does happen. And believe me, we are a self-weeding garden. Laziness is not tolerated well - at least not here. I consider myself damn lucky to have my job, I take it VERY seriously and I love it. Oh, and for the record, my union "negotiated" giving back our contracted cost of living increase last year and we did not get one this year. They also took money away from us and required us to pay 2% more toward retirement. So I now make less than last year. And now my union wants us to give them more money out of our check every two weeks.

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  9. Splendificus, I can only speak from my limited experience with my present unionized employment. I've seen several co-workers get pulled back from the brink of firing by our union representatives. My co-workers are hard working and if it weren't for the union their excellent records spanning years would have been ignored and they would have been shown the door.
    With that said, there are times I feel disgust for my employer and my union in equal measure. Sometimes it feels like your needs are ignored by both, like the only time you see them in the same room is those occasions they get to have a "go" at each other.
    As far as you teachers go? You could never be paid enough for the incredible work you do. I think as "post-educated" adults we should be required to pay more taxes (I know, it would go over like a lead balloon) to fund the educations of our children. Or maybe our politicians should just pull their heads out of their asses and see that there is no better investment than in the education of our children.

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  10. I agree totally with your view on unions. They have a place to be sure, in manufacturing and service where the price of the item or service is negotiable and union and management can hash out the "piece of the pie" they will recieve from it. If the item or service become too highly priced or of poor quality and the consumer refuses said product or service, then both union and management suffer, thereby it give a "reasonableness" to the negotiations.

    When this model is put to the humanities fields it creates a huge unbalance. The product/service becomes something that the consumer is forced to accept, no matter how shoddy. Now union can demand without limit and the ones who lose are the consumers and taxpayers. Also, when the product/service is poor, the field becomes distrusted and riduculed, hurting morale and further spreading the negative result.

    Our legislators and laws should assure that government regulated and taxpayer subsidized industries (eg. police, fire, education, healthcare)should be a model of worker rights and protection through that very regulation alone. They should be treated fairly and fair use of taxpayer money should be assured WITHOUT a union.

    Just my opinion...

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