Do Unions Finally Smell the Coffee?

A friend of mine, a union leader here in Chicago, once mentioned to me that he loved to drive around and count the number of cranes along the city’s skyline because it gave him a sense of how many jobs had to be filled for his rank and file members.

But even as he was saying this, I wondered if my friend (a long-time, old-school union guy) really understood the intricate relationship between cranes and his role as a union head. Because, you see, as he was talking I got the sense my friend’s notion was the cranes were merely a starting point for him, as opposed to the end product.  He, in other words, saw his role as a union leader as one that made absolute certain those cranes employed union workers.  He simply took their presence as Point A.

But I saw it, and still see it, as just the opposite.

I see my friend’s role as a union leader as one that helps build a business climate that fosters more and more cranes and other visible signs of an area’s economic growth and development.  They were the fruits of his labors, in other words, not the seed.

And I write this today because over the past few months I’ve seen any number of pieces of evidence that unions are finally starting to wake up and smell the coffee.  And as someone who has long contended he isn’t anti-union as much as he’s anti-what unions currently stand for, I have to tell you this warms my heart.

I’ve seen any number of examples since the end of last year where union leadership has seemingly become less concerned with individual jobs and salaries and more concerned with the health of its industry and the skills of its members – realizing, it would seem, that taking care of the latter would in turn ensure the former.


This spring, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) announced it would sponsor an ongoing and tremendously innovative inner city high school-level manufacturing training program here in Chicago, the Austin Polytechnic Institute. This would indicate to me that at least one union, perhaps even more than recruiting young members, is (just maybe) concerning itself more with skill development and training. It’s a small step I know, but one in keeping with my belief that in this era, the greatest thing unions can do for their members is to train them for the jobs of tomorrow, whatever they may be. Because as a manufacturer I will tell you the issue is not so much keeping skilled workers, as it is finding them in the first place.
Then in January, Boeing workers in Washington State – just months after rejecting in a 2-to-1 vote a company proposal for wage and benefits concessions in exchange for long-term stability – voted to accept ownership’s package.  It would appear that, at long last, union leadership woke up to the fact that they’re no longer living in a bubble, but competing – just as Boeing is – in a fiercely competitive global marketplace, and they needed to scale down demands and expectations accordingly or risk losing everything.  As a result, their members now have the security of good-paying jobs and long-term stability, along with the comfort of knowing the company that employs them is better equipped to go to war against foreign competition.

And finally (and I’m sorry I didn’t write about this sooner), as a die-hard Cubs fan I just loved how the media fully grasped the importance of the late head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), Michael Weiner, who succumbed late last year to a brain tumor. While not nearly as visible or well known as his two predecessors, Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr, both of whom had confrontational, slash-and-burn styles and would rather see full seasons and World Series cancelled than approve such socially acceptable things as drug testing, Weiner had a far greater respect for the game and its traditions – not to mention the non-cheaters among his rank and file. As a result, as a union head the man was loved and respected by players, owners and fans in ways that Miller and Fehr never were, or frankly never will be.  What’s more, he helped restore the game to a place of honor in the eyes of many, something neither of his predecessors could say.

Does this mean that unions are now focused more on the big picture than their little staterooms on the Titanic?  Who knows?  Human behavior being what it is, it could just be they’re are doing what they need to survive now and may go back to trying to kill the very thing they need, if it means in the short term more money and better benefits

But maybe – just maybe – America’s labor unions are waking up and smelling the coffee, and just maybe we’re entering into a new age of management/workforce partnership, one that — again, just maybe — will lead to an even greater era prosperity and growth for all of us.

We can only hope.

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