Magazine

State of the Unions

By Dave Feehan

One of the more interesting subtexts in the 2012 U.S. presidential and local elections was the role of unions, particularly public sector unions, and the sometimes controversial conflicts that have involved them.

Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker took on the public employee unions and won. Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, tried to emulate Walker’s success, and lost.

Cincinnati’s City Manager, Milton Dohoney, negotiated a deal with the city’s public employee union to support leasing the city parking system to a private company for 30 years, in exchange for pay raises and job security. The parking authority in Scranton, PA, is now in arbitration over union issues. And the Michigan Legislature passed a bill making that state one of 24 “right to work” states, limiting the power of unions to require employees to pay union dues.

Right-to-work states mostly mirror the “red states” in previous elections, and limiting the power of unions, particularly public sector ones, has become an important plank in conservative agendas around the U.S.. Yet unions are feeling a renewed sense of importance, having seen their support tilt the balance in several national and local political races.

Many municipal parking systems, airports, hospitals and universities employ unionized workers, as do some private parking management companies. So an important and timely question to ask is: Are parking systems better off with unionized or non-unionized employees? Like many management and policy issues, it all depends.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I come from a family of union workers. My grandfather was a union organizer in saw mills in Minnesota and Montana. My father was a unionized Minneapolis city firefighter. But only one of my six siblings is currently a union member; three others own their own non-union businesses. I belonged to two unions when I was in college, and have seen the benefits of a union shop as an employee (as well as the abuses). I now own my own business, and have been on the management side of things for most of the past 40 years.

In my professional life, I have managed or consulted with many parking systems and business improvement districts (BIDs). I’ve watched with great interest as national unions or their local affiliates have tried, and sometimes succeeded in organizing parking and BID employees.

While there are undeniably questions about whether the current model of management engagement with employee unions is still delivering what we all want – namely, exceptional customer service at a reasonable price delivered by happy, well-paid employees – some of my colleagues report that the presence of a union is not an impediment to good management. But some believe otherwise.

One example is the city of Boulder, CO. Molly Winter, a veteran and highly respected parking management professional, heads the Downtown and University Hill Management Division and Parking Services. Her employees are members of the city’s municipal union.

Winter said that the presence of a union was “not a problem, not an impediment to good management.” She attributes this partly to the culture of Boulder – a progressive town with little antagonism between workers and management. Boulder also is a university town and has a culture that she reports is quite union-friendly.

But in other cities, union organizing efforts have not been warmly welcomed. In Washington, DC, the Downtown DC BID employs dozens of maintenance and security workers, called SAMs (which stands for Safety, Hospitality and Maintenance). According to Richard Reinhard, Deputy Executive Director of the Downtown DC BID, these workers were approached by the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, in partnership with the American Federation of Government Employees, and asked to support an organizing campaign.

The vote was close but affirmative, and BID officials felt that intimidation was involved. After several appeals, the union ultimately prevailed. Reinhard believes that one drawback to unions is the fact that organizations like his need flexibility and the ability to anticipate situations and respond to them – something that union contracts make difficult or impossible. He believes that in a small or medium-sized organization, the inability of management to communicate directly with workers, instead of through the union, is another drawback to a unionized workforce.

As mentioned, I have had personal experience on both sides of the equation. On the one hand, I’ve seen unions go to bat for employees who clearly were not performing, and were affecting the morale of other employees, to say nothing of delivering poor customer service. On the other hand, I’ve seen “at will” employees fired for no reason other than disagreeing with the boss.

Trade unions were established at a time when industrial companies employed horrendous practices to keep employees in line. Some workers lost their lives trying to organize unions. But today, some unions have become anachronisms, fighting against even the most basic forms of employee performance evaluation.

Many parking systems today are unionized, and seem to work well, but there is certainly room for improvement. Perhaps it is time to study management-worker relationships in union and nonunion shops, and extrapolate lessons to be learned, with an ultimate goal of crafting a 21st century model of management-employee relations.

As parking professionals, we need to understand how workers and managers can best succeed in achieving common goals. We need to determine how best to protect workers from arbitrary and hostile managers, yet allow managers the freedom and flexibility they need to adapt to changing times and conditions and to respond to emergencies and new opportunities.

Perhaps a new model based more on partnership and less on conflict might emerge. At least it’s worth a try.



Dave Feehan, President and CEO of Civitas Consultants, has devoted more than 40 years to rebuilding and revitalizing cities. He headed the International Downtown Association for nearly a decade. Contact him at civitas.dave@me.com.

Article Abstract from February, 2013




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