It’s a never-ending theme from management teams who have failed to manage or lead. Whenever an employee with a questionable work record does something wrong, it’s been the same story year after year: “It’s the union’s fault bad employees were retained.”
Here is a simple fact, folks. The only power a union has to keep members and (in right-to-work states) non-dues paying individuals on the job when the employer wants to get rid of them is through due process, period. At the end of the due legal process, an outside party — not the union — makes the ruling.
Simply put, in a union facility, the company still has a right to terminate an employee for just cause. The labor agreement lists offenses that call for immediate termination and lesser offense, giving a step-by-step process for discipline leading up to discharge. Just as you are entitled to your day in court when you are charged with a crime in the United States, so also are union members when they have been accused of wrongdoing in the workplace (hence the phrase, due process). If you do not have a union contract you are considered an at-will employee and subject to dismissal for pretty much any reason under the sun.
Labor laws require unions to defend all employees to the best of their ability or that union faces potential litigation. I have witnessed cases in which management failed to manage effectively (and companies always have the right to manage). But, it is much easier to place the blame on the union then to take responsibility for management’s lackluster performance. I have witnessed cases when a company purposely ignores immediate termination language and has allowed employees in violation to return to work. In many of these cases the union could never think about taking the case to arbitration, because it would not have any defense based on contract language or law.
The employee returns to the job and other employees are upset. “But why would a company do this?” you ask. Because it divides and gives management the ability to blame the union: “Your union wouldn’t let us dismiss the employee! Look, world! These unions are horrible!.”
Every business out there has the right to manage. They have the right to discipline. They certainly have the right to terminate.
So, can we please stop blaming unions for poor management decisions? A union is a group of working people coming together to achieve collectively what they cannot achieve individually in the workplace. The union gives you a voice, workplace safety and labor laws that protect your health, due process and much more.
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Anyone who believes that unions are to blame for the retention of bad employees has been lied to is lying to themselves or truly does not understand how a union works or labor law works in this country.
Rick Moyle is executive director of the Hawkeye Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.