HOW TO KILL A UNION FROM WITHIN

Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster, Lehman Brothers, Circuit City—and the list goes on.  Most business schools will tell you now that they have had a chance to examine the corpse of each of those once great companies that they died from leadership suicide. Their top leaders made it very clear to employees that they did not want to hear any bad news, that questioning the status quo was frowned upon, and that candid, reality-based planning for the future was not worth the leadership’s time. That is a lesson that is even more important for top union leaders because of the very fragile state of unionism in this country.  We can’t survive much more trauma from the outside.  So, the last thing we need is damage from within.  The Harvard Business Review people just put out a short, thought-provoking article that union leaders should read entitled, “Make it OK for Employees to Challenge Your Ideas.”  We all know it is common that when national union leaders meet with local leaders that everyone likes to hear what the national president is up to and the national president likes to hear what a great job he is doing.  If  not a great job, at least no accusations, criticisms or tough questions.  But every one of those national president-local presidents meetings should devote a large portion of the agenda to one request from the national leadership, “So, tell me what I could do better, what I am missing, and what you need from me.”

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.

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One Response to

  1. ningauble3020 says:

    Union Leadership at my former Local was a sinking ship.

    My Union Local had nominal democratic culture (i.e. triennial votes, quorum of 7 held for major “decisionmaking”, special meetings to nominate delegates to go to the National conventions, etc.) and leaders who said they cared about members, after 5 years with the Local I moved on to another job and another Union.

    Our leadership sat around and played cards and only showed up a handful of times that I can remember. They were a third-rate insurance policy. I donated every cent of my Recruiter Bonus Bucks to get them around 10 new members and they could only remember that we had something like “6 members or something in your unit”. We had 24 members total out of around 170 eligibles. They provided zero training for our one and only steward who quit, disgusted, because they kept saying, “there’s nothing we can do about Management, just give up already”. Management loved them. They called them a couple of knuckleheads and the Management was right.

    Management wrote the MOUs with the Union and the Union rubber stamped the MOUs. Years of mandatory overtime? Sure! Dress code? Why not! Letters of concern in employee files? Approved! The Local had been withholding National level AFGE emails about mandatory overtime that were supposed to be disseminated to membership. The emails leaked and the members were hopping mad. My BU got together a petition of all the dues paying members and submitted it to the Local. It demanded to be kept in the loop. The Local sent one email saying, “I really respect you guys for all the work you do. Also, there’s nothing we can do about the mandatory overtime. It is just Agency policy”. That was the end of that. People started openly criticizing the Union with Management in team meetings. Everyone had a good laugh. I was furious that our dues paying members were disrespected and turned against the Union.

    The members I organized rightfully called me personally to the carpet for a do-nothing Union. They said I conned them into joining and were leaving on their anniversary date. To some extent, they perceived correctly that our leaders were incompetent. Yet no one had the stones to step up and take their positions away. I lacked the training and the strength of character to run for office. Besides, I was in the smallest bargaining unit 1/10 the size of the biggest and would have lost the election handily. I tried talking with them and they brushed me off. They said, “if any of you think you can do it better, you run for office”. I didn’t have the courage to step up. I was afraid of public speaking. I was a hot-headed kid who didn’t know leadership from his elbow. Management had their eye on me for discipline for organizing the most members in recent history. Besides, Management made my skin crawl.

    I’m a Unionist and I would have paid *10 times* my dues money to have solid leadership that had my back. To have an aggressive and powerful Union culture that didn’t lick Management boot leather like Jack London’s Scab and stood up to the petty tyrants would have made a world of difference to me. Without the Bonus Bucks campaign and volunteer organizers, the membership was in a death spiral. The clowns played the fiddle while Rome was burning. Why wouldn’t they? They didn’t have crappy jobs to work, they had their own office and could play cards all day. They didn’t have mandatory overtime. THEY WERE IMMUNE TO FEEDBACK.

    Thanks for a thoughtfully crafted critique of Union leadership, FEDSMILL.

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