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Unions and Productivity: Like Oil and Water?

Haze Gray and Underway! The shop I called home for almost 5 years. The USS Nimitz

I guess it depends on your perspective. In my opinion, if you are a worker looking to get the maximum amount of money for the bare minimum amount of work, then unions probably seem like a good thing.

If you want to be shielded from accountability for your performance, then again, union membership is something you should consider.

If you are not comfortable negotiating your own pay and benefits, and don’t want your pay to reflect the value you create, then you might see a union as a good thing.

If you feel weak, powerless, and unable to stand up for yourself, you might be more comfortable losing yourself in a mob, becoming a small part of a large group instead of an individual.

If you don’t want to be judged on your own merits, but instead be measured by an average, then unions are where you need to be.

As you may have guessed from the above, I’m not a big union man. I’ve worked a couple of jobs with unions, and my experiences were almost uniformly negative. I’ll go into that in another post, but for right now, I just want to pose a simple question.

Are unions good for business?

I’m going to answer that question by describing a typical day at sea for me while I was in the Navy, then we’ll look at that same day in a union shop.

I spent almost nine years in the Navy as a nuclear reactor operator. I spent just about a year in electronics training and then an additional year learning nuclear and mechanical principles, then getting practical experience running a reactor. By any measure, I was a highly skilled and well-trained operator. Yet I still spent time on board the ship pushing a broom or a mop.

For most nukes, as we were called, “days” lasted 15 hours rather than the standard 24. We stood one watch in three, meaning we were operating the reactor for 5 hours out of every 15. My day would begin by going on watch at 7AM. I would operate the reactor for 5 hours, supporting all ship operations, reacting to drills, while maintaining the reactor within safe operating limits. Upon relief, I would grab a quick lunch, then head back into the reactor spaces for another 5 hours to perform maintenance on reactor systems. That maintenance usually consisted of performing electronic calibrations of instrumentation, but we also had a list of valves we performed routine mechanical maintenance on, and there were a couple of electrical systems we had to maintain as well. On some occasions, instead of performing routine maintenance, we would troubleshoot and repair faulty systems, taking them back to the Instrumentation room to analyze and repair the fault. Also, the off-going watch section acted as the casualty response team, responding to drills or actual casualties. If there were drills, some of us might be on the drill team, building scenarios and implementing them for training. And there were always supply runs to be made, which had to be carried from the ship’s stores down to the reactor spaces. At the end of this 5 hour period, we would perform routine cleanup of the spaces, and then break for dinner. The next 5 hours were nominally mine, to sleep, shower, read, relax, or write letters before going back on watch at 10pm. Of course, this off time could very easily be sucked up by other shipboard routines and requirements.

Like training or paperwork. Oh my goodness, the paperwork! As for training, each nuke was expected to become a Subject Matter Expert in a system, a procedure, or something. Each nuke would present training to the rest, sharing their expertise.

Again, this was the standard schedule and the minimum expected of a nuke at sea. In port, things slacked off as the reactor was usually shut down, but there were still watches to stand, maintenance to be done and testing to be performed. We usually stood one day in three on duty, remaining on ship and standing a 2 section watch, which means 6 hours operating, and 6 hours off for a total of 24 hours.

It sounds like an insane schedule, but once you adapted, it wasn’t that hard to deal with. We learned to fall asleep within minutes of our heads hitting the pillow, a habit that remained for years after I got out of the Navy (much to the chagrin of my wife!) We learned to work efficiently and effectively, and to work as a team, backing each other up as needed to get the job done. Cross training was the rule, rather than the exception, and everybody wore multiple hats as operators, maintenance technicians, and janitors, not to mention Quality Control Inspectors, Maintenance schedulers, etc.

Now, let’s look at the same scenario in a union shop. How many employees would it take to do what I did in a single 24 hour period?

One operator (possibly 2. Even though 5 hours in 15 works out to 8 in 24, or a normal work day, the fact that it was split into two shifts would probably make most unions demand two operators.)

One standby operator for the casualty response team

Electronics technician for routine maintenance on reactor systems

Mechanic for routine valve maintenance

Electric worker for maintenance on lighting, etc.

Clerk for filing documentation of maintenance records, drill results, and operating logs

Logistics/riggers for moving supplies

Custodial technician for cleaning

Training professional

I could go on, but right there, we have 8 to 12 people just to do what I did in a single day. Now, this isn’t a time thing; I worked about 9 hours in 15, or a 15 hour day on average. So to do 2-man days of work would require 8 to 12 people if we operated by union rules.

Granted, the Navy is something of a special case, but the analogy is valid. Without the restrictions of shop rules regarding who can do which work, we were able to work much more effectively. In a civilian shop, the same is equally true.

Now it’s very easy to find stories of union rules making the workplace more inefficient, but it’s much harder to find stories that show union rules making things easier. And that’s my challenge for you. Show me instances where the presence of a union has improved productivity. I don’t care if it is anecdotal, although I would like to be able to find some verification. But just because my experiences with union shops have been universally negative, that doesn’t mean that it always has to be that way.

So show me instances of unions improving the quality/productivity of a shop.

One last point before I go. Ben and Jerry’s is about as progressive a company as you will find in America.

And they fought tooth and nail to keep unions out of their business.

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