I’ve been a business management consultant for over 20 years, and have just begun my 17th year as management columnist for a national trade magazine serving a tiny little piece of (what’s left of) American manufacturing. It’s an industry I broke into in my early 20s.
In the nearly 30 years since, I have (1) founded and owned a successful business in that industry; (2) held management roles at two others, (3) held sales and/or management roles at companies which distribute manufactured goods to professional contractors, and (4) managed the day-to-day operations of another company in a completely separate field.
In short, I’ve hired, fired, and evaluated the performance of people – and crunched the numbers – at for-profit companies for most of my life.
The conventional wisdom is that owner/manager types like me are strongly anti-union – and I am.
But I strongly support the Employee Free Choice Act, known more briefly as EFCA.
Much has been said and written – nearly all of it vitriolic – about this proposed change to the National Labor Relations Act. If passed, EFCA would make it easy as pie for workers at any company to organize.
(Read the bill, without spin from one side or the other, here.)
So why would a pro-management, anti-union, all-for-profitability guy like me support EFCA?
Because I understand what EFCA would really do.
This update to the NLRA, a statute that has served this country’s workers well for 75 years, would once and for all put employees at non-union companies – and that is the critical point – on an equal footing with company management. And for American businesses, that can only be a good thing. Here’s why.
The union movement was, of course, born in response to unfair labor practices and poor working conditions. While many believe the problems which unions sought to correct have been largely addressed, one still remains: At any moment, a non-union company can unilaterally and drastically change the terms under which its workers are employed. There is absolutely nothing, at present, stopping a non-union company from immediately slashing employee pay and benefits.
By allowing workers to unionize immediately, EFCA would match, on workers’ behalf, the unilateral power now held exclusively by management. With that possibility looming, poorly managed firms – and take it from a management consultant, they are everywhere – would get a game-changing moment of clarity, an opportunity to truly partner with workers – or become unionized.
Such management/worker partnerships are the key to any company’s success.
At the core of any successful business is people. Not its customers, but its workers.
If the people on the front lines of the company are not doing good work, it doesn’t matter how many customers that firm’s promotional efforts attract. The poor quality of the product will ultimately send those customers elsewhere.
So, how do successful business owners keep their workers happy?
They pay employees what they’re worth instead of as little as possible.
They make employees integral to the company’s success, not tangential, like easily replaced parts of a machine.
Most critically, they make communication with employees their top priority.
This is not management-consulting mumbo jumbo. Time and again, year after year, I see the difference between companies that put their people first and those that don’t. That difference, in two words, is mutual concern. Without it, short-term success is possible, but growth is limited and longevity – well, forget it.
Business interests, from small business owners to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have a laundry list of reasons for opposing EFCA. Most familiar is the complaint that it is un-American, for it “does away with the secret ballot.” If you’ve read the bill, you already know that is bullshit.
Yes, EFCA allows employees to organize immediately by petition, but it preserves their right to hold secret-ballot elections. So this objection is a thinly veiled distraction from businesses’ real problem with EFCA, namely, they will no longer be able to coerce employees against unionizing for the 30 days preceding an election (if they opt to unionize by petition).
Other objections from the business community are nothing more than off-topic diversions. To wit:
- Business owners like to say they are the ones taking all the risks, and should therefore be free to run their businesses as they see fit. I sometimes hear it from consulting clients: “I’ve got everything on the line here. All employees need to do is come in, work hard, and collect their paychecks.”
I tend to sever the consulting relationship right there, because it’s clear I’ll be wasting my time.
We all know American workers don’t save anything anymore, and not for lack of wanting to; the ever-increasing cost of living has forced workers to live paycheck to paycheck. When they take a job, employees therefore put everything on the line, as surely as their employers have. They’re counting on that job to pay the rent or mortgage, pay off student loans, buy the health insurance that fewer and fewer employers do.
Any employer too dim to see the opportunity presented by such circumstances for real team building – not the ersatz variety preached on motivational posters with which too many employers paper their walls, then roundly ignore – is in need of help far beyond my capabilities.
- Business interests love to warn that unions are corrupt. As if to imply no businesses are.
- And then there’s old reliable: “If my employees don’t like the way they are treated, they can get another job!”
Or, they can organize. The decision to do so – or not – and how to do so, should be theirs – entirely.
So why now?
As our economy continues to founder, employers are more – not less – inclined to take chances with their employees’ futures. We’re not hearing so much these days about “the jobs Americans don’t want to do,” an erstwhile selling point for guest-worker schemes. The phrase implies that Americans are above certain types of work, while would-be immigrants are not.
Translation: It’s okay to pay undocumented housekeepers, farm workers, and day laborers a less-than-living wage. They’ll take whatever they can get, so why not take advantage?
Well how’s this for starters?
Be careful, the day laborer you’re screwing just might live next door. (A tip of the hat to Jim Moss).
Of course, I’m not alone in knowing what EFCA really does.
The pro-business Right – those claiming utter commitment to accountability in all things – they know what EFCA really does, too.
It brings employers into the real world, making them just as accountable to their employees as they insist their employees be to them.
That’s only fair.
It’s only right.
It is maybe as far as you can get from “un-American.”
EFCA’s opponents have only one hope for stopping it, then: By scaring small businesspeople witless.
Based purely on the witless nature of the arguments I’ve heard against EFCA, it would seem they’re succeeding.
But with EFCA in place, owners and managers too self-interested to see the prudence in building partnerships with their workers will have good reason to change their ways – and American business will get the push it needs to start innovating again.
One more thing.
You might be wondering how can I support EFCA and be anti-union. The reason is simple: I will always prefer paying employees handsomely for their work over having a union come between a company’s owners and workers. I sincerely believe most owners and workers would prefer it, too.
There’s an old saying: Companies that are unionized always deserve to be.
Truer words were never spoken.