Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Now I'm working hard for my union card..."

I grew up in a pro-labour household with parents who grew up in Chicago, a pro-labour town.  When I was a teenager, I rebelled against this and embraced capitalism, sometimes with a big "C" and sometimes with a small "c."  My mom's eyes would roll, as she thought I was some "Alex P. Keaton" clone invading her household.

If truth be told, I wanted to be the next Geoff Travis of Rough Trade or Tony Wilson of Factory.  This is what what kept me in university and why I did well, as I wanted to learn how to channel the spirit of DIY post-punk into a successful venture.  In order to pay the bills, I had a very good paying summer job working at a factory that was a union shop.  I had no stakes in the job and with my irreverence at the time, given mandatory overtime policies, I thought it was hi-larious to put a "SL" in front of the company wordmark on my employee badge, which was for a large label manufacturer.  I didn't think much of that union or unions in general.  In about 10 years, that factory I was working at would relocate as a maquilladora down in México.  Did the unions price labour out of the market?  My courses told me that unions as something to thwart.  Nevertheless, I still liked Lloyd Cole and the Commotions songs with references to union cards {Charlotte Street}.

This summer, there was a garbage strike in Toronto.  One of the sticking points was "bankable sickdays," where employees could bank up to 18 sickdays and cash out on half their future value upon retirement, which could be significant for a longtime worker.  What struck me was how so many people reacted negatively to the idea of bankable sickdays, often stating that they don't get bankable sickdays, so why in the hell do city workers get them.  I'd play devil's advocate every so often, asking, "why shouldn't you and everyone else get bankable sickdays too?"  The policy was framed as an excessive perquisite that the taxpayers couldn't afford.  What's more interesting to me than the policy are perceptions and meanings of "work" in an era of downsizing and outsourcing, where employees often feel lucky to even have a job.  I'm not a fan of Michael Moore, but I did think it was interesting how he called out ABC on its use "permalancers" on the set of Good Morning America {via HuffPo}::

While he is advocating more unionization, I think it's time to rethink organizational configurations that go beyond bargaining for perquisites and privileges within the constraints of profit or benefit maximization.  I'm in favour of single-payer health care in principle and have blogged about how a system of healthcare benefits tied to formalized employment has a negative effect on innovation and the creative industries.

There's plenty of organizational sociology that can guide this rethinking of organizations.  Old policies meant to provide benefits and thwart union demands, such as pension plans that assumed a growing workforce, can topple a company.  Peter Drucker in 1950 was skeptical of GM's pension plan::
"For such a plan to give real security, the financial strength of the company and its economic success must be reasonably secure for the next forty years...But is there any one company or any one industry whose future can be predicted with certainty for even ten years ahead?...The recent pension plans thus offer no more security against the big bad wolf of old age than the little piggy's house of straw."
While pensions are a benefit with the implication of a long time horizon, it goes to show how large companies {and markets} don't always know best.  Ask anyone with a restructured or defunct pension plan.  I'd like to see labour and management work collaboratively to solve problems, but let's face some facts.  Quarterly earnings targets and political posturing will get in the way, in addition to short-sightedness in terms of the longview implications of policies.

So, what should the worker demand and what should organizations offer?  While I think about the organization I'm developing, in terms of its culture, structure, and policies, I'm thinking along the lines of economic sociology and the social relations of production.  In other words, it's less about pay and perqs. and more about meaning and more than just the ebbs and flows of financial capital.

Twitterversion:: Reflections on the nature of work & thoughts on unionization in an era of globalization, outsourcing, & downsizing. @Prof_K

Image:: Brando in On the Waterfront

Song:: Charlotte Street - Lloyd Cole

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