I should start by pointing out that I have never had to work with a union…and I hope I never do. I have union friends however. We learned long ago that if we want to remain friends, union topics should be kept off the table. As a right-leaning HR guy, it's probably not hard to figure out how I feel about them.
Unions baffle me at times. I understand how they originated and I can still see their appeal to the average blue-collar worker. I do not begrudge employees who band together to protect their rights as family members who don't want to work 60+ hour weeks and as humans who don't want to worry about getting cancer from their job.
What I don't get are the unions that supposedly stand up for their workers, by protecting the rights of the weakest while holding back the real achievers.
The annual Washington State teachers strike is underway in my old stomping ground, Tacoma. During a time of recession, the teachers of Washington's 3rd largest school district decided to walk out on 28,000 students during their second week of school. The issues in contention? Pay, class sizes, and (my favorite and, according to the teachers, the most important) the way that teachers are transferred from one school to the next.
Under the current contract, the teachers with the least seniority move. The district wants more flexibility in determining who can move based on a broader series of factors.
This is where I am stumped. What the heck is all the fuss about seniority? I can totally understand why people with the longest tenure want to be treated the best. I totally pulled tenure when there was a chance I was going to lose my swanky window office overlooking the soccer field and commons area for an office overlooking other offices. I get it. But, I don't understand how, as a broader group of organized employees, a union can overlook the fact that this is a huge ball and chain to the best of their employees, regardless of experience.
Talking to recruiters who work at union houses, I often hear stories about how hard it is to compete when you can't offer anything outside of union regulations. If a person has 10 years of experience, they make a certain amount of money. Period. It doesn't matter if they were "Employee of the Year" or if they were able to save the business a ton of money by rebuilding a process fixing an old error. That person will make the same amount as another person with 10 years of experience that put in their 9-5 and complained about it the whole time. In my world…if you're a stud, you are rewarded appropriately. If you're not…well, same thing.
To hear the teachers talk, they haven't decided to violate a court order to return to work over pay! How insulting! They didn't get into this for the pay, after all. It's all about protecting the workers, right? If you've been teaching for 20 years, you have earned the right to that cushy job at this school full of rich kids with stay-at-home parents who are very active in their child's education. It's UNFAIR to ask that experienced and successful teacher to take their skills and put them to use in a less successful school that needs leadership and guidance from the rank and file.
Likewise…it's only RIGHT that this first year teacher, fresh out of college and excited to have an impact in the lives of children,should be placed at this run-down school in an impoverished neighborhood where the PTA is made up mostly of Ts and the teachers are tired and burnt out. Forget that their first year will be rife with stressful days, sleepless nights, and lots of frustration coupled with limited mentorship. That's where they belong until they have paid their dues…and I don't mean union dues, because they have to pay those whether they like it or not.
"Teacher of the Year?" Doesn't matter. Incredible student graduation rate? Doesn't matter. Getting an advanced degree will help you, but it doesn't matter if that degree comes from Harvard or the University of Phoenix. "Years trump effectiveness" (the best part is at 12:05). Because of the beloved union, fairness means rewarding people just for being there while holding many of the strongest back.
Editor's Note – Jason Pankow is a Senior Recruiter for Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE and Xbox Software groups. Jason supports the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft, bringing in technical, as well as creative, talent to Redmond. Look him up on Xbox Live, where he'll ring you up for a triple-double as Steve Nash on NBA 2K8 or kick it old-school via a 7-digit score on Galaga…