Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Public Employee Unions

I grew up in manufacturing supervising and working with union represented employees.  And one thing I know is that management is at fault when operations are inefficient.  If it turns out that the union workers are at fault, then please refer to the previous statement about management.  Its not just the literal wording of the union contract that drives waste and higher operational costs, but how the place is run day to day.  How the work is planned, how the workers are trained and supervised, how disciplinary problems are handled, how facilities and equipment are maintained, how supplies are provided and stored, how labor is allocated. Is there a focus on satisfying the customers?  Are there continuous efforts being made to streamline processes?

I don't care if you pay the crew minimum wage, if the crew isn't managed well, then there will be waste and the cost of unchecked waste in operations can easily dwarf the savings from bargain basement wages.  If there are workers sleeping on the job or getting drunk and management allows it, then the managers are the  ones that should be fired first.  Don't try to tell me any union contract shields that behavior. 

I'm not sure that we even have the right enablers in place for effective management of union employees in municipal operations.  In the schools, we entrust the management of multi-million dollar enterprises with hundreds of employees to promoted teachers who have education backgrounds. In facilities there are typically members of one union supervising crews from another union and no real management to speak of.   Managers in many civil service positions have a pay scale that is tied to the number of employees under their control so there is no strong incentive to reduce the size of their crew.  Department budgets that aren't spent by the end of the year are prone to be cut permanently so there is strong incentive to spend every drop of allocated funds, whether its needed or not.  If managers don't get rewarded for reducing costs and might actually stand to lose compensation, then what's their motivation?     

Most all union members I have worked with just want clear direction about the job and want the right tools, time and equipment to do the job well.  No one feels good about doing a job half-assed.  And believe it or not, busy workers are almost always happier in their jobs than the ones without enough work to occupy their time.  This is a direct take-off from the definition of inertia;  objects in motion tend to stay in motion, objects at rest tend to stay at rest.   Its no different with the crew.   
So we can all kick the unions as the problem, and I'm quite sure that old-school union militancy in all its ignorance is still out there resisting change, but management can almost always enact great efficiency gains even within the confines of the contract.  If they truly can't then the voters need to know that so they can  elect different politicians and local leaders who can negotiate contracts that provide the right enablers for eliminating waste and using the taxpayer's money as if it were their own.

I dare say Government operations at any level that involve union represented employees can learn a lot from the lessons in manufacturing over the last couple decades.  Don't let the inmates run the asylum.  Manage every operation by continuously striving to eliminate waste of all forms in work elements and processes.

Its not impossible to run efficiently with a union workforce.  That's a cop out and a sure sign of a poor manager.



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