Monday, December 05, 2005

Ask the Administrator: Is There Power in a Union?

A professional-staff correspondent writes:

I'm a member of the staff association at my school. We meet regularly, both among ourselves and with various members of the administration to discuss problems that the staff is facing. We have also met regularly with the Board of Trustees. We have generally asked for very practical things--mandated evaluations, more transparent procedures, easy access to policies, harassment training for employees. Our requests have seemed to fall on deaf ears. These discussions have been going on for years about these same issues. Needless to say we're getting a little frustrated. Recently, someone on the committee raised the possibility of unionizing. It does seem to be the only option. What do you think of this option? Alternatively, what suggestions do you have for getting a response, or preferably some action, on our requests and future requests?

There are times when I have to be very conscious of which hat I’m wearing. As a dean at my particular college, which has multiple unions representing just about everybody other than managers and adjuncts, I don’t have a problem with unions. As a dean generally, I’ll roll my eyes in solidarity with deans everywhere who have to deal with the inevitable procedure costs unions bring.

As a manager, it doesn’t faze me at all to negotiate pay and benefits. It’s the work rules that rankle. I’m beginning to think it’s because the folks who have the drive to start unions, and the folks who usually rise to the leadership, tend to be capable, competent, and generally trustworthy (at least in my experience – I’m not talking about the huge, established industrial unions here). The problem is that they think everybody in the union is like them (and every manager gleefully quaffs the blood of the innocent), so they push for rules that would be reasonable and fair if everybody were as conscientious as they. Of course, not everybody is, and you can wind up with rules that prevent taking out the trash, so to speak. Managers then spend inordinate amounts of time developing work-arounds to compensate for the rigidities of the contract. A contract built on the assumption that every manager is arbitrary and every worker virtuous is a lousy contract.

Depending on the culture of your school, unionization could be met with anything from indifference (best case) to a purge (worst case). If other parts of your college (i.e. the faculty) have unions, that should help. It’s technically against federal law to fire people for union organizing, but it happens, especially during Republican administrations.

You might be able to free-ride on the threat of unionizing by letting the threat leak. Leave a few documents lying around, start a whispering campaign – if the administration thinks that unionization is a live threat, it might make a few strategic concessions to make unionizing seem less necessary. (Then again, it might just clamp down, depending on local culture.) Then you jump in as the ‘reasonable’ alternative – address our clearly-valid concerns, and we’ll work with you to keep those evil (fictitious) organizers outside the gates. Entire industries have done this, and it can work. I’ll leave the discussion of its morality to subtler minds than mine.

Another way to get attention, without resorting to the ‘u’ word, would be to construct a few worst-case scenarios around the procedures or rules you find objectionable, and start dropping a different word: litigation. In my experience, managers are far more scared of lawsuits than of unions, since lawsuits are much more likely to happen. Best case, again, find some viable threat and offer to buy it off with procedural changes.

Faithful readers: what do you think? How could this play out on your campus?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.