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All the Chicken-Littling from conservatives over the Employee Free Choice Act – legislation “so radical,” Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) says, “it has been endorsed and supported by the Communist Party USA” – took me back to my first professional position after graduate school. 

I was a training consultant for a large Hartford insurance company.  My first assignment in that new job was to attend a program on “Employee Relations” at the parent company’s New York headquarters.  All the training directors from the parent’s various subsidiaries attended. 

“This is terrific,” I thought.  “Imagine … this company has a program to teach managers how to maintain good relations with employees.  What a great place to work!” 

That led to one of the first great lessons of my fledgling career: beware the benign descriptor.  Things are not always what they seem. 

“Employee Relations” was a euphemism.  The real subject was “Union Avoidance.”  Our assignment was to spend a week with management-side labor attorneys and consultants learning all we could about how unions operate and what a company’s prerogatives were when a union tries to organize its workers.   

Then we were to return to our companies and create training programs to teach all managers and supervisors how to detect and quickly respond to any indications of union organizing.  The course would be titled “Employee Relations” so that rank-and-file employees would not know its true subject matter. 

Any indications of union organizing activity were to be referred to parent company management immediately.  They would have a team of professional union busters at your workplace overnight.

This was not my first encounter with unions.  As an undergraduate, I worked in a steel mill on the second- and third-shift labor gang, doing the kind of work that only ex-cons and college students would do.   

In the mill, as a card-carrying member of the United Steel Workers of America, I had seen first-hand all the good that unions could do.  A steel mill is a dangerous place under the best conditions (“If it ain’t hot, it’s heavy.  And if it ain’t hot or heavy, it’s sharp.”).  Had it not been for the union, going to work would have been a daily descent into hell, from which descent several dozen people a year would not return. 

Union working conditions, work rules, and safety standards made most jobs in the mill at least passably safe.  Union pay and benefits – including health, dental, disability, and life insurance and a pension plan – promised that even the lowest-paid worker could support a family. 

And the shop steward and the union grievance procedures ensured that every worker would get a fair hearing if his performance or conduct were called into question. 

So on that first day of the “Employee Relations” meeting, with still-fresh memories of the noise, heat, grime, odor, and terror of a steel mill in my mind, I earnestly inquired:   

“What’s so bad about having a union anyway?”  

Dead silence.  The instructor responded with q question of his own: “Why don’t we spend a few minutes together at the break?” 

That led to the second revelation of my new job: no matter what they say about ‘thinking outside the box,’ remember that management always own the box. 

Still, it seemed like a reasonable question to me.   If you pay your people a living, competitive wage that can grow over time based on the company’s and their own performance and seniority … and if you help employees provide for their families’ and their own short- and long-term financial security through carefully-designed insurance and pension programs … well, what’s wrong with that? 

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Rick Wise is an industrial psychologist and retired management consultant. For 15 years, he was managing director of ValueNet International, Inc. Before starting ValueNet, Rick was director, corporate training and, later, director, corporate (more...)
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