Saturday, December 27, 2008

Union Work Rules -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I read a great article on Pajamas Media about the damage that union work rules are causing in Detroit. Rand Simberg is right in his article. These work rules are stifling productivity.

When I graduated from high school, the president of our local bank called me one day and asked if I had a job for the summer. Nope, said I. Mike then told me about the job that got him through college...working on a freight dock. He arranged for me to have an interview for a summer job as a "casual" -- union-speak for a temporary worker. I got the job and kept it for 4 years. That union money put me through college, along with Social Security Survivors Benefits. In 1976 I made $9.02 an hour (I still have the paystubs!). That was an enormous sum for an unskilled college kid. I got paid time-and-a-half for any day over 8 hours. Friday nights I would come on at 2pm and work until 1 or 2am. That's 8 hours at $9.02, and 4 hours at $13.53, so in one day I could make $125 or so.

Mr. Simberg's article reminds me of a confrontation I had once with the dock foreman. We had two of them. One was an old grizzled veteran, and the other a 25-year-old hard charger. I liked them both, for they made sure I got enough hours to pay for college.

One night the younger of the dock foremen came out to me on the dock and asked me to open a trailer's doors so that he could see if there was anything inside. We would always sweep out trailers before loading them (pretty good money for sweeping). I thought to myself, "WTF, why don't you open the damn doors yourself?". But I held my tongue and opened the trailer doors. Empty.

About a half-hour later, he came back out and took me to another trailer and told me to open it up so he could look. Again, I held my tongue, but I thought this guy was pretty damn lazy to make me walk all the way down the dock just to open a trailer that he could easily open.

A bit later, here he is again, asking me to open up a trailer. I knew him pretty well, and we were out of earshot of the other workers, so I said "F*** you, dock foreman, open the damn trailer yourself." Well, he kinda grinned at me and said, "You don't get it, do you? Since I'm a foreman, if I touch that trailer, I have to pay the union steward (usually the guy with the most seniority) a full day's pay, since that's a job you guys do. The union rules forbid me to touch it."

Well, since I was a snot-nosed college kid, what did I know? The light bulb came on for me, and I apologized immediately. From that day forward I never complained when asked to do a menial task that someone else could do. But I also formed a terrible opinion of the union on that day. Being introduced to work rules that are assinine will do that to you.

Don't get me wrong...union work rules started out as a way to make sure that the company didn't mess with your job. But they have become a way for the union to prevent the company from innovating.

By the time I was a senior in college I was making over $12 an hour. I thought this was an outrageous sum...until I got my tuition bill every fall. Then I was glad to have the job.

Work rules killed the freight business (my old company, Illinois-California Express, or ICX) is still around, but as a shell of its former self. They're killing the auto industry, too.

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