Wowzers, talk about a ton of spin on this deal, I wonder how many folks have actually read the proposed legislation, instead of the sound bites. Granted, its not super easy to follow, but the Committee on Education and Labor has a mythbusters page Its a must read to counter the sound bites.

One myth I’d like to look at is the following:

MYTH: Given the economic crisis, now is not the time to enact the Employee Free Choice Act.

FACT: The Employee Free Choice Act is needed to address underlying economic problems that helped create the current crisis and to ensure that the recovery is fair and sustainable. Dozens of prominent economists, including three Nobel Prize laureates, recently signed a statement in support of enacting the Employee Free Choice Act, as “a critically important step in rebuilding our economy.”

As a general rule, I am not pro union, having experienced a significant amount of the downsides over the years. Everything from paying $250 for a union guy to connect tradeshow gear, to friends who work at the big3 complaining about the inability to get rid of problematic employees, and other stories. Even in education there are problems. Many years back, when I did a lot of programs for school children, it was exceedingly demoralized to see all the union propaganda in some teachers lounges. I was like, how on earth can anyone work in such a toxic environment, even more so, should I be an employee, part of my check would be used for such… sad, very sad.

By the same token, I’ve worked in industrial and lab settings all around the world. One offshore steel mill I consulted at, they had a siren and warning strobes. Apparently it was such a common occurrence for things to go wrong, that drills were not needed. And yes, the week I was there, I did get to put in my exercise for the day, running out of the facility to avoid a shower of molten steel. It was accepted as normal operating practice. At another facility, they were processing volatile epoxies, and while they had a ventilation system, it turns out that when the wind blew a certain direction, the fans couldn’t keep up. The end result, explosive fumes built up in the ventilation system, and such that an explosion would result, thus creating a flame thrower on the plant floor. This happened frequently enough, they had used duct tape on the floor to mark off where the flames came out. No union would let that happen here in the US, but offshore is another matter entirely.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of time with US air traffic controllers over the years. In some facilities, things work quite well. In many others, the managers are anything but management material. If it were not for the union, the unchecked magnitude of distraction in the workplace would rise to such a point, I am sure serious accidents would result. Even with the union, a review of NTSB reports shows serious ATC management deficiencies impacting safety… its not good.

The end result, my views on unions have tempered a lot over the years. I still believe the traditional MBA mantra that unions are the result of failed management, but I moreso firmly believe far too many managers are failures. Even in a serious downturn, only a small percentage of employees are going to take issue with major benefits/salary cuts, contract rewrites, or even layoffs if it means stability for their jobs and their employer, provided the process is managed correctly.

Sadly, in too many cases its not. Communication failures and/or setting the wrong examples abound, such that the overall company mission is compromised in addition to the employees livelyhood. Ie, cutting employees pay, while taking a huge bonus shortly thereafter is not setting the right example. Another is overlooking safety hazards as they are too expensive, all the while getting new office furniture. Sure, that can be a perception issue, ie, it may take time to get the right specialist in for a safety retrofit, and a 2 cent on the dollar firesale on office furniture may be the deal of a lifetime. If such is communicated, people will understand, if not, expect trouble. Its management 101… and either business schools pass an idiot once in a while, or greed is the highest possible calling for a few.

In addition, as the economy winds down, and boards of directors end up more and more distracted, the potential for corporate looting and other errant corporate behavior will increase. In some cases, it may go so far, such that no recovery will be possible, much less the ability to ramp up as the economy comes back to life. A third party audit may or may not catch such… but employees may well suspect something is up, and the union may give them a path to safely make it known.

However, the proposed legislation doesn’t address my initial issues at all. No one needs $250 guys to plug in a cord, nor a teachers union that kills off far too many good teachers with all the garbage, nor a union that protects bad employees, or even forces an employer to continue paying laid off employees at 90% rates. Those are very real concerns, but fortunately they are a minority of occurrences, and again are subject to bad management, Ie, what business in their right mind would agree to such terms.

I sort of doubt such insane agreements were intentional, but more so concessions under arbitration. Some legislative guidelines for arbitrators might have been useful additions to this bill, albeit difficult to do and not really directly within the scope either.

Overall, the potential positive outcomes of the proposed legislation far outweigh the downside. It makes a lot of sense to leave the decisions to unionize or not in the hands of the employee. It might even save some jobs, or even entire firms, whether they get unionized or not, ie just knowing an additional party is keeping watch during this time is a help. This legislation is well worth it.