Unions Behaving Badly

This post has been a long time coming. The current strike by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 741, which drive and operate the buses for the London Transit Commission (LTC) was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Lately it has been clear that the requirement and use of unions in the developed world is no longer necessary. Indeed, unions seem to be doing far more harm than good these days. First it was the catastrophic downfall of the North American auto manufacturers (not the only cause, but a big one no doubt). Three months ago, here in Ontario, the union representing driving examiners at the DriveTest centres, which are run by a private company called Serco (clearly outsourcing it was a big mistake) went on strike and there’s no end in sight to that one.

The DriveTest strike has so far caused people to lose their licenses due to non-renewal, delayed young drivers from getting their G1 learning permits and also caused people testing for new licenses (A-Z, A-D, etc.) to lose the opportunity for employment. What good is that doing for the province and our economy?

But that’s the reason for me writing this. Lately, every strike in the developed world (I refer mostly to much of Europe and North America) is about money. Many well-paid, hardly skilled workers wanting more money for work that almost anyone can do with little training. Automotive factory unions, retail unions and the like no longer do the economy, the companies they are employed by, or the employees they represent any good.

If you think I’ve gone off the deep end on this one, think again. I previously worked at a non-unionized automotive parts plant making good money with plenty of opportunity for career advancement. I started out machining parts (adding bolts, clamps, etc.) and then moved to the manufacturing portion because I made it known that I would like to (yeah, that’s really all it took!). They needed help, they had a willing participant… I got the call.

If an employer really cares, they listen to their employees. That’s one of the good things unions have brought us – better rules, a more level playing field. But much of that progress has ended, and now all they want is more money.

Case in point: The LTC strike. From what I can tell, bus drivers are currently paid over $24/hour to DRIVE A BUS. This requires little special skill minus a driver’s ed course and passing the driving exam. But that’s what they get paid, and they want more. Somehow the union has got it into its members’ heads that they’re worth… get this… $30 an hour. That’s what they want! And, unfortunately, precedents have already been set in other cities (Hamilton is often cited though the Hamilton area is almost twice as big as London). They want to be paid over $200 a day to drive a bus around the city. Where do I sign up?!

And this problem certainly isn’t isolated to London, Ontario or Canada. A Boeing plant in Seattle lost a contract to another division in South Carolina because Boeing saw the Machinists Union in Seattle as a big strike threat. Why? Because the Seattle Machinists Union has gone on strike over 3 of the last 5 contract offers from Boeing. Meanwhile the South Carolina plant voted to decertify the Machinists Union there in September.

If I was a Boeing shareholder, I’d be applauding the decision.

And in the other London (England), a union that runs the bus service on the east end of the city started a 48-hour strike on Friday. Why? Stereotypically, they want better wages and benefits. Those drivers are currently paid between $49,000 and $62,000 a year (I converted to Canadian dollars for a better comparison). I know the cost of living in England is higher than it is here, but that’s got to be decent money still. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

The rumours I heard when Toyota was looking for a location for their new plant, before they settled on Woodstock, was that they were screening people for their attitudes towards unions somehow. If this is true, I’m sure they went about it in a way that didn’t violate any laws (or at least they tried to). But still… clearly there’s an aversion to unions by business owners. Why? Because it becomes clearer and clearer every time that unions no longer help to progress fairness in the workplace – they want money, and as much of it as they can get; business viability be damned!

The solution? I think the solution is to elect good political representatives (and stop voting for a particular party but for the best candidate) and make your voices heard. I think the solution is to walk with your feet – if your boss won’t listen, go to HR. If HR won’t listen, talk to a lawyer. If your lawyer tells you you don’t have a case, then either what you think is an injustice either isn’t or there isn’t a law against it yet. Either way, you should probably re-examine the so-called “problem” you have with your employer.

Not to mention, it’s easier than ever to start your own business. So if you hate your boss that much, be your own. There are a lot of ways to start a business, either with your own money or someone else’s.

My solution to the LTC strike is one that has been echoed on Twitter: Shutdown the London Transit Commission. Start up London Transit Services instead (or London Street & Rail, or the We’ll Get You There Commission – who cares?), post up jobs for as many full-time drivers as it takes to staff the service and start them off at $17 or $18 an hour with raises according to performance or the consumer price index (CPI, a.k.a. the cost of living). I bet you this new London Transit will get thousands of qualified applicants clamouring for jobs. Screen the hell out of them, make sure to hire some people who haven’t worked for the old LTC and let’s get going.

I know what at least some of you are thinking – what about the people who still want a union? No problem – if they don’t like raises indexed to the CPI, let’s give them a performance based system. Let’s make sure comment cards along with golf pencils are available, as well as a feedback page on the website, knowing full well that people who complain will be more vocal than people who really enjoy the service.

Promote the heck out of the fact that drivers will be based on their courteousness, how often the bus is on time (taking factors outside of their control into account like construction and accidents), and how often they don’t stop for people that are running for the bus (I’ve been a victim of this and have seen it happen too many times – meanwhile the same bus driver has time to stop the bus, get off and grab a coffee at Tim Horton’s). Make it EASY for people to give this feedback, one way or another, and put together a scorecard. Done.

There are thousands of people who can’t get to work, school, the grocery store, the pharmacy, etc. thanks to this ridiculous strike. It’s clear the drivers are only looking out for themselves – let’s treat them to be a little more altruistic by incorporating a good customer service attitude into their performance evaluations.

And I know I’m not alone.