The conference I just attended was held in Philadelphia. We were at the convention center, there was lots of physical labor to be done, and the unions were ubiquitous. I have always been sympathetic to unions. My grandparents were all immigrants (from Italy on my Mom’s side, and Ireland on my Dad’s). When they came to this country, working conditions in the Boston area were pretty dire.

My mother’s parents worked in the mills in Lawrence, MA, scene of the Lawrence textile strike. As the article points out:

The mortality rate for children was fifty percent by age six; thirty-six out of every 100 men and women who worked in the mill died by the time they reached twenty-five.

The mills and the community were divided along ethnic lines: most of the skilled jobs were held by native-born workers of English, Irish, and German descent, while French-Canadian, Italian, Slavic, Hungarian, Portuguese and Syrian immigrants made up most of the unskilled workforce.

The Italians had actually gotten there ahead of the Irish, but when the Irish came in, they were given the better jobs, since they spoke English. At least that’s the story I grew up with. It was the supposed explanation for why my mother’s mother never liked my Dad. I remember being told I had “mixed blood” when I was a kid. This is hilarious, of course, given they were all Roman Catholic Europeans.

The other story I recall growing up with was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. This tragedy was mythologized alongside stories about extended family members who’d lost fingers and limbs in mill machinery in Lawrence to underscore the good things the unions had done for immigrant workers.

Hence, my sympathy for unions and my suspicion of corporate entities.

Fast forward to last week in Philly. The union workers were everywhere. We were briefed ahead of time that if, say, a loudspeaker needed to be moved, we were NOT to touch it, but rather, we needed to find a union worker and ask him or her to move it where we needed it. My company hires audio techs for the conferences, and they, too, were not allowed to touch the sound equipment. Rather, they had to show the union workers how to do what needed to get done.

Fine. I was willing to see this as an inconvenience that could be set aside in the interest of the greater good.

Except. Well, except that in the week I was in the convention center, I don’t think I saw a single person who actually looked like they had even the remotest joy or interest in their job. People looked utterly bored and miserable. No laughter, no curiosity, no joy. Nada. Everything was a big drag — I went into one room, where we were slated to have a panel of five experts talk to the audience. There were two microphones and five chairs jammed around a tiny table.

“Could we get a larger table for this?” I asked, “And a mic for each person who will be speaking?”

Angry gaze of the man I’d asked. Bitter discussion with his co-worker. One of my colleagues reviewed the work request, and indeed, we’d asked for five mics.

The thing that was kind of awful was the lack of communication. The union guys seemed to expect to be screwed over, and they weren’t even a little curious about what the equipment was for, or what we might be trying to accomplish. In other words, they were not interested in investing themselves in the broader vision.

Too pie-in-the-sky, my notion that they might want to collaborate?

I guess so. But really, that’s tragic.

At one of our conference sessions (which, rather ironically, focused on how to motivate workers), a speaker talked about how one significant aspect of compensation is the opportunity to develop and be exposed to new challenges. Yes, I know people can not be expected to savor a challenging work environment if they are struggling to feed themselves and their families. But I don’t think that is the case here. What seems to be happening is that the union is training workers to expect nothing from their work except a pay check. And no matter how nice that pay check might be, if your job has no joy, it’s a crappy job. Period.

Corporations, which I used to see as evil empires, are at least recognizing that workers want challenges and development. No, they aren’t developing people out of altruistic motives. Companies recognize that to cultivate high performers, they need to offer challenges and opportunities and training and support. They need to let people follow their bliss, to put it in the most liberal terms. It’s good corporate policy. Engage and develop and motivate your workforce and you’ve got yourself a competitive advantage.

Let’s contrast that to my parting experience in Philly. We are all sitting on the plane. Apparently the baggage workers are unhappy with the merging of their carrier with another. We hear the bags being tossed into the cargo space. Thunk… … … … … … … thunk… … … … … … … … … thunk… … … … … … … thunk… … … … … … … … … … … … thunk. Minutes between each thud. A work slowdown. Lovely. Ninety minutes to put the luggage on the plane.

I’m losing my religion.


13 Responses

  1. Hi Karen
    I assume the workers at the Boston convention center might also be union employees. I was surprised many times, when going to the bathroom, how two employees would pretend to be at the bathroom cleaning and then proceed to hold lengthy discussions about their families or other topics. I was in the bathroom with closable doors, but because there wasn’t any sound insulation, I could hear them loudly and wanted to tell them to get to work.

    On the other hand, fellow blogger April Smith, who blogs on CRON, is a big union organizer for nurses. She’s quite passionate about her work. If you’re interested in what she does, you might want to check her archives.


  2. Oh, boy. Yes, get those people back to work. Need to clean the toilet constantly. You sound like someone who has never held a menial job Arturo. You should try it, put yourself in their shoes….can’t tell me you ever just dinked about at work chatting, blogging, on a Friday, on the phone, took a long lunch. I assume you’re on salary.

    As far as unions, they really have done this country a world of good. Helped to get rid of a lot of inequalities, but there are so many times that they become outrageously over-bearing. Demands become too much that jobs are outsourced.

    As far as challenging workers, how do you challenge someone to feel good about cleaning the toilets all day, or loading luggage? More money? Better benefits? Treat them like people not just another cog even if they clean toilets all day? So many jobs would be challenging just to show up to everyday.

  3. It seems like one thing the union has done is split jobs out into tiny pieces; one person to drive the forklift back and forth; one to pick up the box and put it in the doorway of the room; one to bring it into the room. This was in the interest of creating specific tasks, but it kills any interest in the bigger picture. People are so hyper-aware of their “turf” that the job just grows smaller and smaller and more tedious.

    In corporations, there is a trend toward more complex jobs for people — with people trying different functions and developing across the organization.

    Loading luggage or cleaning toilets is thankless, no doubt. But what if people had the opportunity to learn other jobs, to see the big picture of how all the tasks fit together, to supervise, to participate in the organization? Union has drawn boundaries between worker and management in a way that divorces the worker from the working of the organization — it polarizes them from the larger organism that they are part of. And yes, that turns people into cogs.

  4. I would hesitate to blame the union for this. Rationalization and fine-grained division of labor are complex social processes and often the dark side of technological advancement. White collar and blue collar are different worlds.

    For what it is worth, the two main organizational changes that have most alienated hotel workers recently– first, the establishment of two tier benefit systems by which newer workers (who are more recent, less “white” arrivals–Italians and Irish were not seen as white during the Industrial era, but became whitened through the union-helped process of middle class growth, same way Latinos are not QUITE seen as white now) get fewer benes, and second the increase in work demands without increase in paid hours to do them–have been corporate led. These are demands corporations have inserted in to new contracts across the board in the past 5 years. What do you do? Work-process slowdown–the weapon of the weak–is a centuries-old response.

  5. I don’t want to blame — I’m just finding it hard to try to understand. It seems like the unions are playing a zero sum game with management, and I’m not sure how that will help workers — especially when you factor in outsourcing and globalization.

    I know my perspective is very limited. Any reading suggestions?

  6. Read Jennifer Government. It doesn’t have anything to do with unions but it’s entertaining.

    I don’t think the bored worker sydrome is caused by anything unique to unionization. It comes from limitations imposed upon individuals, whether by their own doing or by environmental factors, like family or ethnic culture or whatever. Maybe unions exacerbate problems by keeping workers stagnant in defined roles but that pigeonholing happens in non-unionized corporate environments too. People that don’t get to do what they think they should do, and who opt to perform some kind of non-ideal job so that they can earn a living, ultimately will get bored with the job. Personal sacrifice to expediency only gets a person so far in this world.

  7. Oh, don’t worry about losing your religion. The way things are going around here, people will soon be flocking to religion en masse. Somebody will happily take up your religious slack!

  8. Oh! Exciting question!!!

    The Big Squeeze by Steven Greenhouse.

    He’s such a unique and knowledgeable (and good) writer, and the book is being hailed as a crucial piece of historiography of our era. Great research, both broad and personal, pro-business and able to take workers’ POV.

    Here’s Robert Frank’s review in the NYT last Sunday.


  9. Ok. Just one more thought since it feels non-preachy to say this and since blue collar workers are not here to say it.

    Today I started a list of things I was free to do as an office worker (program assistant in a business school at age 23) that I was not free to do as an assembly line and dock worker (unionized summer jobs in college). It was a long list, including things like go to the bathroom, take a phone call, sit down while working, leave work to vote in public elections, and say no to overtime without automatically losing my job. So different from how I relate to work now… it’s hard to empathize even 8-10 years later.

  10. you make an excellent point, ovo.

    I worked in a needle factory once (quit after one day) and found it mind-numbing and depressing. But it did give me a better appreciation for the work lives of others.

    Like most mature organizations, many unions have lost their way – but the need for collective bargaining still exists.

  11. Yikes, Susan, my first job was as a janitor. I’m not without a soul. I was bothered that I didn’t have the privacy of using the bathroom at a convention center because two employees used the bathroom to visit with each other. I understood everything they were talking about, it was in my first language. I’m not elitist in any sense. Part of me wanted them to go back to work so that I could use the facilities, and another part of me wanted them to go back to work or at least go quietly about their business. I don’t blog while at work. I do check personal email from time to time, yes.

  12. I also need to add that what I experienced and witnessed was not an isolated case. I was at the convention center in Boston for 4 days and I can tell you that more than once I was using the restroom and there were two employees using the restroom as a place to hide and chat for at least 20 minutes. If that was their break time, fine. But I don’t think the restroom is what their management suggests as the place to take their alloted breaks.
    Cheers, Arturo

  13. Hey girl — I think you’ve conflated the city of Philadelphia, I know brotherly love and all that, with the “union”. Do you even know which “union(s)” you are talking about? I didn’t think so. Philadelphia is a surly city — it’s got to be the armpit of the human condition, at least in the U.S., no make that the world. I have traveled a bit and never felt as on edge and in a constant state of paranoia — people spitting on you, glaring at you, just generally unhappy that you are occupying their space. I am thinking that you might have a tough time getting seated in Philly on Sunday by a church usher?

    All that being said, the Reading Station Market rocks. Food was an instant, and effective, antidote to the social distress. Just don’t step back outside after a bowl of snapper soup without re-securing your headgear! It was like HG Wells’ Time Machine — in the market you could observe the Eloi evolving, but outside the Morlock’s reigned. Very scary.

    Perchance you had fallen under the spell of seeing what you were told you would see? Did you know the Marriot was a non-union hotel? And that’s where most of the logistics challenges were encountered. Don’t blame the union, blame the event planners or somebody else. Don’t think they are unionized?

    Anyway, we all know that an organization gets the workforce it deserves. Organizations take years to carefully cultivate a culture of boredom, resentment, entitlement, and applied apathy. When the crop is ready for harvest the union steps in to take it to market. No, don’t blame the union. That’s way too convenient.

    For shame, in the month of May, to decry the unions for your first big city experience in a while. You’ve been out west a long time now haven’t you?

    Workers of the World Unite. Come the Revolution baby! I think you lost your religion a long time ago.


    p.s. My flight arrived back home 40 minutes early!

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