Talent Management Column

Puzzling Out Union Impact

The furors over the dispute in Wisconsin with public-sector unions and the one between the NFL and its players provide plenty of questions -- and not very many answers. But such situations do offer HR leaders some broad lessons.

Monday, March 28, 2011
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What do the National Football League and the state of Wisconsin have in common?

The answer to the question posed in the title above is that they each represent the front line in what has been a long battle between labor unions and management, one that has taken a new turn.

The purpose of this column is not to bash unions or to praise them. I take the point that it is incredibly difficult to run businesses and organizations and that unions can make that more complicated. I take the point that many employers are callous and that it is very difficult for individuals to live on the terms and conditions that prevail in many US labor markets now.

(Anyone who wants to complain to me that I'm not appreciating either side of this argument will immediately be put in touch with someone arguing the opposite side, and the two of you can fight it out.)

What I want to talk about instead is the change in public opinion that has caused the front line in union-management conflict to shift and the puzzle as to why opinion has changed.

A quick review of the events above. The Wisconsin governor and legislation introduced and then passed legislation to curtail sharply the rights of unions to organize public sector employees and bargain with the State. The argument for the change was that the State's financial crisis made it impossible to govern the State in this crisis and have to deal with unions.

I don't want to shock anyone here, but the real explanation is political.

Just as the Democrats in Washington used the need to stimulate the economy to give money to programs they've always wanted to support, the Republicans in Wisconsin are using the fiscal crisis there to introduce changes they've long wanted.

(If you doubt that, ask yourself why the Wisconsin legislation exempted the police and fire unions that supported the governor or why the state didn't first try to negotiate with the unions before moving to get rid of them.)

The conflict between the NFL and the Player's Association is an even bigger change.

Remember when it was unions that threatened to go on strike? Here, the owners have demanded substantial concessions from the players and threatened to lock them out -- not play the games and pay the players -- unless the players agree to those concessions.

While it has not been unusual for employers to demand concessions from unions when business is struggling, in this case, the game of football is doing extremely well financially. The dispute is simply about how big a share each side gets.

The irony here is that it looks as though the players actually have more power if their union is dissolved, allowing them to sue the NFL in various ways as individuals. So the NFL is actually fighting to keep the union from dissolving, as a way to improve its power in the conflict.

In both cases, the real power is with the public. The Wisconsin administration is obviously elected and can be voted out of office if the public dislikes what it is doing.

The NFL's concern, a little less tangible, is what the fans think: If even a small percentage of them vote with their feet to spend their dollars elsewhere, it will cost the league a lot. And the players as individuals are wildly more popular than the owners. The willingness to take aggressive action against unions, therefore, depends on what the public thinks.

And here's the puzzle: Public support for unions has been reasonably stable according to Gallup polls, which showed that about 55 percent to 60 percent of Americans approved of unions from 1960 until a couple of years ago.

As late as 2004, 58 percent of Americans said that unions mostly helped the companies where they represented workers. In fact, support for unions actually ticked up slightly at the beginning of the Great Recession.

Then, this past year, approval of unions collapsed, falling from about 59 percent to 48 percent, and similar changes took place in the public's view on whether unions had too much power.

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The reason this is a puzzle is because the period when it was easiest to argue that unions had too much power and were hurting business was in the 1970s, when support for them was reasonably strong and stable.

As the Wisconsin and NFL cases illustrate, unions have never had less power in modern times than they have now. In general, the question in most rounds of collective bargaining since the early 1980s has largely been, how much will the union give up?

So why, when unions are at their weakest, does the public think they have too much power? Why has support for them eroded so sharply?

I'm not sure. But it is clear that it is possible to shape public opinion independent from the reality of circumstances.

The unions have done a really poor job of making their case to the public, even in circumstances that seem to favor their positions, such as the NFL dispute. The employer side has done a terrific job of marshalling arguments and steering public opinion in their direction.

In the recent battles with public-sector unions, for example, despite the fact that early on, opinion polls indicated at least modest support for the unions and their positions in these disputes, the stories in the media have focused mainly on resentment against public-sector employees and their deals.

And in the football dispute, the narrative is the more neutral take that both sides are at fault for being rich and greedy, rather than the owners have provoked a possible season-ending dispute by seeking unilateral concessions.

And, of course, these union-management public opinion battles are related to the broader and now more partisan fights between Democrats and Republicans. (As most of you know, I'm sure, unions disproportionately support Democrats while employers disproportionately support Republicans.)

So the broader lesson for those interested in human resources and the management of people, in general, is that what happens inside our organizations depends maybe more than we believe on what people outside our organizations think and believe -- and that those views can be shaped.


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