What I’ve Learned From Labor Unions (2013)

I’m employed by a company that expects me to work unpaid overtime – sometimes lots of it. From a managerial perspective, this is short-term brilliance, because every extra hour I work dilutes my rate. From a long view, this is sloppy leadership – projects are developed and deadlines set with the attitude that everyone will “do whatever it takes” to cross the finish line. Productivity appears high, but efficiency is terrible, and the long-term health of the organization will likely suffer (poor morale, increased turnover, etc.) So this Sunday morning, as I contemplate another full day at the office, I’m thinking about labor unions.

I’m not a member of a labor union, although I used to be. I still have the opportunity to work with union crews though. Every leader should have the experience of managing a contract labor force – this is why.

1) They sharpen my priorities. With a union crew, I need to understand what must be accomplished – we have a strictly limited time to get everything done. If we exceed time allotted, costs go up (I don’t have the option of reducing everyone’s rate on the fly). And I’m on the hook for that.

2) They force me to know my shit. If I don’t understand what I’m managing, things can go wrong and they’ll stay wrong. A workforce is essentially a tool – it might be of highest quality but if the manager wields it poorly the incompetence will show. And here’s the key: with unions, it’s the manager who gets replaced, not the workers. As it (almost always) should be.

3) They force me to do the right thing. When schedules get tight, it’s tempting to crack the whip and drive the team harder. But the coffee break is mandatory. Too many hours in a row are forbidden. And conversely, if I try to shave costs by getting rid of people on the fly, the workers are guaranteed a minimum paycheck – I should have planned better to begin with.

If I do well at each of these, the cycle perpetuates – the next project is easier, it is accomplished more efficiently, and we all look good.

Now, I’m also aware of the limitations of labor unions – there are reasons I no longer belong to one. I don’t argue they are the ideal means of accomplishing all tasks, and too often they stand in the way of the best possible outcome. My point is that managers who have never worked with a labor union are missing the chance to fully develop their skills, and they probably don’t even realize it.