Public Sector Unions – Challenged by tradition

A rally of the trade union UNISON in Oxford du...
A strike in Oxford - Image via Wikipedia

Public Sector Unions throughout the Western world are coming under scrutiny. The protests and conflict in the Northern US is not characteristic solely of the US or its spate of polarised politics. Canada, Britain, Germany, France, and the US are faced with serious debt, serious economic challenges, and there are, or should be, no areas where serious review and evaluation should not take place.

At stake is not merely the notion that expenditure should be cut. That would be both imprudent and likely result in the fate of all blindly executed efforts to cut budgets, a reduction in quality and service. Rather than simply reducing costs obtaining value for money is really what needs to be obtained and validated.

While the public suffers under the yoke of lost savings, increased gas and heating oil prices, and diminished opportunities, public sector unions have unwisely chosen to try and hold the line on the benefits they have accrued over years of boom times.  Unwillingness by civil service management to confront the Unions without the support of politicians, who often depend either on the support or avoiding the anger of unions during elections, has in large part contributed to the state government finds itself. This battle between the Unions and Government has been a long time coming. Sadly the accumulated bile on both sides of the argument is likely to be a disservice to both.

While the heads of governments have realised the challenges and risks associated with these times; the Unions supporting the Public Sector have largely missed this recognition of the need for change, at least in themselves.

Certainly there are different ways of addressing the challenges the economic crash has presented to Western Nations. While each side of the political spectrum may agree or disagree with government action, it is universally agreed that action is demanded.

Cognitive dissonance in the collective minds of Public Sector Unions is a profound failing. That action should happen, but not to us, is the view of many union leaders and a disservice to the public they serve and the membership they claim to support.

While it is within the purview of a Union to negotiate the best deal possible for its membership, it is unreasonable to presume that in times of austerity due to calamity as we face now, that these members should be spared any inconvenience. Reduction in pay, or other compensation, a lack of increases should be considered both sensible and inevitable. Yet, more is needed. Public Sector Unions need to rethink their role and that of their membership. They need to consider and strive for value.

While there is a practicality and sensibility to collective bargaining, it cannot undermine the budgets and fiscal responsibilities of the governments supported by the Unions. Collective Bargaining is a negotiating tool, representing many as one. It is not, nor was it meant to be a means of holding hostage public interest and extracting unreasonable compensation regardless of performance.

Pay for performance is universally a fear of Public Sector Unions. It must not remain so. In the private sector the notion of pay for performance is well known and practiced. While it may be trite to say, it is unfair to presume that anyone least of all the public tax payer should see their tax dollars doled out without regard for value. This should be the first and foremost concession made by unions. To achieve this however, union membership must shed some traditions that once were foundational to their operating mantra.

First among these is mandatory membership. Unions should not be able to impose membership and thereby a structure of seniority and permanence on potential participants. Some might argue that without mandatory membership, Unions would be impotent and unable to support the employees they are intended to represent. Yet, this would presume that constant representation was required. It is not. In fact, it is largely this very notion that has created an adversarial relationship between management and staff that has caused this disparity in private/public sector compensation, sensibility, and effectiveness.

While there was a time when labour was grossly abused by oligarch like management practices and there were no small justifications for a strong union to protect workers, those days are largely over and labour laws have taken the place of the picket line. Now, strikes are not about workers rights and fair treatment, but money and benefits.

Recognising that any employer should obtain a full day’s work for a full day’s pay is the baseline for employment. Unions should be equally interested in removing poor performing members as employers. In fact, if Unions took the view that poor performance reflects badly upon all members of the union, there would be less tolerance amongst union membership and fewer hurdles to the removal of lacklustre performers. However, more important is rewarding good performance, the encouragement of staff to strive to greater achievement and the fostering of innovation. It is wrong headed to believe that simply because a worker is employed by the government and thereby the ‘taxpayer’ that he or she should not be rewarded for good performance. In fact, it should be insisted upon. Through years of resistance to performance reviews and assessments, unions have created in reality and impression the image of a grasping, passive-aggressive lump occupying a seat with the full knowledge that no force in the universe short of a full pension can evict them. This impression undermines both the dedicated workers who do make a positive and consistent effort, but also creates an environment of drudgery and barriers to success. Managers do what staff could do because they lack faith in the quality of work they will receive. Staff members are unable to take on greater responsibility because a ‘brother’ union member will report their failure to abide by the collective agreement. Unions have come to be an impediment to their own success.

Unions of course did not turn out this way alone.

Management practice needs to change as well. Staff development, career planning, training, objective setting, review, assessment, and strategic planning are skill sets that are seldom practiced in the government workplace – at least in tandem. However, changes to how management deals with the Unions must also be developed. In fact, many structures are already in place. Governments are familiar with the request for proposal and bidding processes. Unions should be enabled, with management support, to ‘bid’ on work within the government, new projects, and to propose new innovations. Management should partner with union members to form teams to address both the ongoing services and new innovations.

Yet, its unlikely in the short term these two groups will come together voluntarily. Where then is the catalyst for such innovative thinking?

It should be with politicians.

The application of a new strategic relationship between management and staff in government departments and agencies is key to finding a reasonable accommodation between the need for fiscal responsibility and value, and the kind of positive employment experience that Unions often talk about, but seemingly seek to undermine. Politicians have a responsibility to focus on the strategic, on the long-term benefit. Yet, this would require courage on their part to potentially risk missing the short-term benefits that can be easily pointed to during election time. Hobbling the Unions today will play will at the next election, but likely not afterwards and in the election following. Short-term thinking should not be a quality of political office.

Lastly, if unions are to remain viable, then they should off load the cost of pensions and healthcare from their employers and take on the responsibility for providing these services for their membership. These opt-in services would permit the Unions to demonstrate an important aspect of corporate citizenry that they do not today. As part of a pay for performance culture, union members would be keen to provide viable and value added services; through these, they would create security and capability for their employees. As well, they would remove the administrative burden from government of managing health care and pensions. While this would not necessarily result in lower wages, it would lower overhead operating costs for governments. In addition, it would provide workers with greater control over their pensions and healthcare, without being seen as a burden to the taxpayer.

While efficiency may result in a reduction of overall staffing, unions – like management will need to adapt. Moreover, unions and management will need to focus on core services and capability. Those services that are niche based, may enable former union members to offer up services to government, as part of outsource and contract agreements.

Yet, this is an effort that will require courage, motivation, and perhaps years to fully leverage.  Whether the politicians can set aside their rhetoric, management it’s ignorance, and unions their unnecessary antagonism is debatable. Certainly, the kind of talk that is going on today in places like Britain, the US, and France suggest that the time is not ripe for such innovation. As such, the results may be imposed to the detriment of all involved.

Kind regards,