Tech & Work

Are unions the answer for government IT workers?

A TechRepublic member suggested that unions were the only way to go to combat poor pay and bad management in government IT jobs. In response, Ramon Padilla discusses the pros and cons of joining a union in this article.

I recently received feedback from a reader who thought my article on best management practices was a little "soft." He said that he was tired of bad management and poor pay in government IT, and the only way to fix the issue was through unionization.

I feel for this particular individual, because if you're in a situation where you have bad management and low pay, there's not much that keeps you coming to work each day, and even less that motivates you to perform well. However, having said that, unionization is not a cure for bad management. While it may help with pay, lousy management can still prevail.

I have managed in union and non-union environments. They can both be positive places to work, but the non-union environment is certainly easier from a manager's perspective. But before we get into that, let's talk about why you might consider joining a union in the first place. Labor and trade unions negotiate with employers on the part of their members to determine the conditions of employment. This negotiation process is called collective bargaining, and it's governed by federal and state laws, administrative agencies, and judicial decisions.

Basics of collective bargaining

Workers organize for a variety of reasons, such as better wages, safer working conditions, protection from exploitation, and more job security. Basically, some workers feel that the only way to get any change from management is through collective action. There are several existing unions for government workers at all levels, so many of the job functions are already under collective bargaining agreements. However, if you're working in a non-union shop, an existing union will sometimes offer to aid employees in organizing their own local chapter. If there is interest among the employees in organizing a union, the sponsoring organization will "campaign" to convince the employees that unionization is the way to go, and then a vote is held. (This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but the process is close.)

During the campaign period, as in most political campaigns, there's a lot of talk directed towards the ills that workers are feeling, workers are promised the moon, and a great deal of management-bashing (deserved or underserved) can occur.

I witnessed this first hand a few years back when I oversaw an IT department (non-union) that was merging with another IT department (union). For a year prior to the merger, my employees were wooed in order to convince them to join the union in the other department. I could not comment, but I heard my employees debate the pros and cons of unionization. Here are a few valid points that were made:

Pros:

  1. Higher salaries. Even though I worked very hard to keep our salaries competitive, the union positions paid higher wages—not by much, but enough to make it very tempting.
  2. Job security (for some). Everyone knew that layoffs would come soon after the merger, so those with a great deal of time in the organization were tempted by union seniority rules. According to this rule, people who are laid off are able to bump someone else with less seniority out of his or her position.
  3. Negotiated raises. Seeing the raises that the union workers got over the years compared to the non-union raises—this definitely was a plus for unionization.

Cons:

  1. Union dues. If workers join the union, they have to pay monthly dues for the privilege of being represented. I can't remember the exact amount, but it was significant enough to make the non-union employees think twice about it.
  2. Representation by a group of people who really don't understand their jobs well. Since IT is usually a small minority of the total workers, the elected union leadership tends to reflect the less "technical" jobs in government. Therefore, many of the non-union staff felt that they would be represented by people who didn't have a clue what they did.
  3. Promotion and layoff process. In a union environment, you are often forced to promote and lay off based on seniority. For workers with less seniority and those who believed that promotion should be based on hard work and skills, this was definitely a strike against unionization.

So who won? Well for a short period of time, no one. The department was merged and both units were allowed to remain as they were. No employees joined the union from my shop, although the invitation was open.

What did this mean for me as a manager? Managing a union shop meant a definite loss in flexibility when it came to handling day-to-day activities. Things that I could quickly make a management decision on in the past suddenly required me to "check the contract" to ensure I wasn't violating a negotiated agreement. I also found that certain decisions that I used to make had been "bargained away" by previous management, and I couldn't make those decisions any longer. There was also a more strict definition of what people's jobs were and, by golly, we don't do anything that is not in our job description.

Despite the constraints placed on me by the contract, it was possible to manage successfully and to build a good relationship with the bargaining unit (which is very important). Would I choose managing a union shop over a non-union shop? No way. You have much greater freedom as a manager in a non-union environment. Thus, it's a double-edged sword—this freedom can be used to create a great working environment, or it can be abused, which will create an environment that's fertile for collective action.

The rest of the story

For those of you who are managing in a non-union environment, don't take your flexibility for granted. Do what you can to make your environment a great place to work, and you will be rewarded with reliable, productive employees. Neglect to do so, and you could find yourself facing a much tougher environment to manage in.

For those of you who are unhappy and working in a non-union environment, you do have options. However, don't take collective bargaining lightly. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of unionization.

As for how my situation ended up: Not long after the merger, I became a layoff casualty. The majority of my employees joined the union, and the remainder left the organization—either by choice or through layoffs.

Check out the links below if you want to learn more about unions and labor management:

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