A polarizing debate is raging about unions. Currently confined to public-sector unions, the debate will no doubt extend to the private sector as well.
Initially unions were formed to address safety and fair wage issues. Once these were largely resolved, unions bargained for benefits. Unions have provided us with the 40-hour, five-day work week, child labor laws and other improvements in our condition that many of us now take for granted.
The bargaining patterns that evolved worked well in a closed economy. This no longer exists. The structures and agreements made then cannot be sustained now. This does not mean that unions are no longer relevant or needed. It means that a new paradigm is necessary for them to remain relevant in the eyes of employers and the public.
This new paradigm requires changing from an inward focus to one focused on delivering excellent services in the most efficient manner. Union members are the ones who deliver services to their customers each and every day. They have the singularly unique opportunity to see what works and identify where improvements in services and processes could be made.
This is a valuable perspective as these opportunities are largely invisible to people on the opposite side of the bargaining table. Unions from auto workers to teachers need to re-envision themselves as engines of innovation and productivity. Work rules should exist to maximize efficiencies, not maximizing the number of people needed to perform a task. Continuous improvement should be encouraged through continued training and education. Compensation systems should reward excellence, remediate poor performance, and remove those whose performance does not respond to remediation and mentoring.
There can be excellence in janitorial services as well as in teaching. Excellence creates its own demand and the ability to share in the additional value created. When undeniable value is delivered and unions are recognized as engines of innovation and productivity, the voices questioning their relevance will become silent.