By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

A modest proposal for federal employee unions

steve kelman

I read a fascinating article in The New York Times this week headlined "New economy workers try to form a new kind of union.” It was about the employees of Gawker Media, a youth-oriented media company, who recently voted to organize into a union. They are concerned about job security, and also want a way to have their voices heard in the workplace in a more organized way.

The article went on to state, however, that employees “emphasized that their union contract … would look nothing like your grandfather’s. No pricey pension plans. No promotions based solely on seniority. No set hours for a given workweek. No prohibitions against layoffs.”

There also seems to be little hostility between workers and management. An employee was quoted in the article saying, “Everyone agrees that the company is really working well right now. It was more like ‘Let’s formalize this great thing we have.’” The company’s executive editor and CEO were both portrayed as somewhere between unconcerned and supportive of the unionization effort.

As I read the article, I had a dream. There is, at least ideally, much to be said for unions. They provide a way for employee voices to be heard in the workplace. And even some mainstream economists are now saying that too-weak unions in the United States have contributed to the growing income gaps that have occurred over the last 30 years.

But when I move from this article about the new Gawker union to the reality of U.S. federal employee unions, I see a movement that sadly is mired in the work world of the past century -- and the early part of it at that.

Too often, there's a hostile attitude toward management that sees government leaders as akin to mill owners from the early years of the English industrial revolution rather than people who should have a shared mission of serving the public; an instinctive resistance to new ways of organizing work to make it more effective and efficient; a stubborn defense of every last job in an office; and, all too often, defense of poorly performing employees. There's even support for bureaucratized hiring and promotion systems.

I am of course generalizing here, but I think my generalizations are close enough to reality to frustrate even those people who are favorably inclined toward employee unions.

So I have a dream.

Can federal employees in this new economy reinvent themselves into a new kind of union? One that starts with the obligation to serve the public, and accepts reforms and changes that can help employees serve the public better? One that does not rush to the fevered defense of incompetent employees? One that represents legitimate employee interests without outmoded labor vs. management rhetoric?

My dream may well be a pipe dream, but the article about Gawker's union got me thinking about it. Any chance?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 18, 2015 at 9:10 AM


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