Monday, June 25, 2012

Individuals Serve in Totally Different Capacities as Employees and Union Members


We've been discussing ongoing strikes at Caterpillar and American Crystal Sugar recently.

We've also been describing the many problems associated with the subpar performance of our public schools as well.

Now let's put the two together --- private and public sector alike --- and attempt to unveil what the presence of unions generally means to productivity and solid performance in any workplace scenario.

Just because someone belongs to a union doesn't necessarily make that person either (1) a productive or (2) an inefficient employee. Most employees have little direct contact with their union representatives.  People come to work, do their jobs well, receive adequate compensation and then go about their private lives. It's a job they do for which they're compensated appropriately. And if they genuinely dislike the work situation, they're free to go elsewhere in an attempt to improve their circumstances.

To repeat, most employees aren't involved or exposed to the inner workings or internal politics of the union to which they belong.

The "System" at Work ... Harmful to Productivity and Individual Excellence

With respect to their role, union leaders try to extract as much compensation, including benefits, as they can from the employer. They do this to demonstrate that they are on the job and working hard for the benefit of their members.

Regarding work rules, seniority issues and such, union representatives usually spend most of their time representing the members that are below average performers. Since the union leadership represents all bargaining unit members, they generally are trying to protect the underperformers. The high performers don't need the union leadership's help and frequently find the union rules actually hinder performance.

Unfortunately, this means that the lowest common denominator approach is the usual result of a union's presence. If everybody with the same seniority gets the same pay, there is no incentive for the high performers to do their very best, even though many will do so anyway.

Thus, over time the overall productivity of the workforce tends to suffer, and any pride associated with individual peak performance disappears. It's the system of mediocrity at work, and it's a failing system at that.

And this is true of that "sameness" system, whether it's a private sector or public sector workplace. The presence of a union environment and its work rule restrictions make the difference.

An Example ... Charter Schools

To look at why and how this works, let's see what light Why Charter Schools Work , which is subtitled 'Accountability for results and freedom from union rules attract the best teachers into the profession,' can shed on all this.

{NOTE: When reading the referenced article, consider how the private and public sector workplaces are actually quite similar. Simply stated, if we want to fix what's broken, both in the private and public sectors, we have to go straight to the source of the underlying problem.}:

"The charter movement is not only about opening charter schools—its goal has always been to fundamentally transform public education in this country.

Critics claim that charter schools are successful only because they cherry-pick students, because they have smaller class sizes, or because motivated parents apply for charter lotteries and non-motivated parents do not. And even if charters are successful, they argue, there is no way to scale that success to reform a large district.

None of that is true. Charters succeed because of their two defining characteristics—accountability and freedom. In exchange for being held accountable for student achievement results, charter schools are generally free from bureaucratic and union rules that prevent principals from hiring, firing or evaluating their own teams.

Freedom without accountability is irresponsible. Like all professionals, educators need to be accountable for the results of their work. Yet accountability without freedom is unfair: How can teachers or principals be held responsible for results if they don't control decisions about curriculum or teaching methods? Accountability and freedom do not guarantee that a school will provide an excellent education, but they are prerequisites. . . .

Smart, driven people want to work in a place that holds them accountable, where they'll work alongside educators who share their values—first among them, a belief that all children can learn at a high level. It's exciting to work with talented colleagues who believe enough in their own abilities that they are willing to be held accountable for student learning outcomes.
We give our teachers an enormous amount of autonomy, and that ignites their passion. They feel happier because they no longer have to endure the demoralizing impact of working with people who are lazy, who gossip and complain, or who don't believe in the potential of the children. Autonomy inspires teachers to be more creative and feel more committed. As one of our reading teachers, Michelle Scuillo, put it: "My old school made me tired and depleted. I understood why so many smart people leave teaching. I have to admit that I stopped putting my best effort into my lessons. I was ready to change professions, which was devastating for me, because in my heart I wanted to be a teacher.". . .

Working at our school, she told me, "blew my mind. I'm the same person and it's the same population—even some of the same exact students I used to teach in my old school. Here the culture allows you to be yourself. I feel respected and heard. I'm motivated to make my lessons better." It's a message I've heard from hundreds of talented teachers who were about to leave the profession before they discovered our school or similar charters.

Talented teachers don't want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it. So our schools get clear on objectives and get out of the way, allowing teachers to come up with their own ideas and to select whichever practices they think are best. . . .

When the union and political forces that are protecting the status quo finally come around to doing what's best for children, they will find that it is also what's best for the majority of teachers. Then we will see the best and brightest minds competing for the privilege of working in the teaching profession—a profession that will finally be elevated to its rightful place as the noblest in our nation."

My Take

Our productivity issues and their solution are pretty much the same everywhere, private and public sector alike.

The vast majority of employees want to do a good job and make a positive contribution to the outcome.

They also want their company to succeed in the competitive race for customers, and they want the students they teach to be successful as well.

But unnessesary obstacles are often placed in their way by both government bureaucracy and the unions. And that's no longer tenable, since we don't have an economic "pie" of unlimited size to distribute among ourselves as we see fit. Our nation's global competitive issues are very real. For that matter, so are our enormous debt load and entitlement obligations.

Accordingly, we very much need ongoing excellent and peak performance by all of our employees, co-workers and fellow Americans, including ourselves.

Unfortunately, unions and government bureaucracies tend to dumb down the individual will to excel. This lowest common denominator approach has been tolerated for far too long in America.

As in team sports, it's time for all of us to play smart, hard and together. We are an American team, made up of talented individuals, so we must become and remain the best team we can possibly be.

In teaching, pay is traditionally and wrongly based on seniority and the number of degrees the teacher possesses. Not by how well the teacher and students perform or how much they learn or improve.

There's apparently too little trust in the "system" for that individualist approach. But teammates on winning teams trust each other. We must learn to do that in the American workplace, too.

We can't mistakenly trust the union or the government to do the right thing for us. They can't make us immune to the global competitive forces. Only peak performance can do that.

But as with teaching, pay and job selection are largely treated the same way in the private sector. Union members are paid based on seniority and the job they hold. Of course, the job they have quite often depends on their seniority.

There's simply not enough individual freedom, either with those doing the selecting or those being selected, to make a meaningful difference and be accountable for the outcome.

Summing Up

We are under enormous pressure from around the world to perform at higher levels, both in the "global" classroom and in the "global" workplace as well.

The current system of rewarding mediocrity and ignoring excellence has to change. We simply have to do our best if we are to be the best.

And for those individuals who strive to perform at the peak level, we need to encourage  them and provide them with every opportunity to do so.

That means giving each person the freedom to experiment, to work hard, to fail, to succeed, to make and learn from mistakes, to implement remedial changes and stay on the path to continuous improvement.

Unions tend to discourage individual opportunities to excel and improve, and so do government bureaucracies. As a consequence, many of our teachers and employees who would otherwise excel are the ones who pay the price --- at least initially.

Eventually, however, all Americans are being forced to pay that price, and it's a price we can ill afford to pay.

Besides, it's a totally unnecessary price for us to pay.

At least that's my view of today's global competitive world and why it has to be changed.

Thanks. Bob.

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