advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

The lazy shouldn’t unionize

I just moved into a new condominium complex—it’s a co-op—and so far I’ve been really disappointed with the staff’s work ethic. The receptionist/concierge spends most of her time texting, and everyone else seems either distracted or bored. Meanwhile, packages go missing, and the grounds, common areas, and garage are untidy. A neighbor told me they’re trying to unionize, but I’m thinking now might be a good time to clean house and start fresh? I consider myself to be pretty progressive on labor issues, but this seems ridiculous. Why should we pay these people more when they’re just not doing a very good job? – Name withheld      

Let me see if I understand you correctly.

You’re saying that because your building’s staff isn’t doing a good job now, they’re efforts to organize can be dismissed? Only once they’re performing at some acceptable level, you feel, should their grievances be taken seriously?

I’m not sure you understand what collective bargaining is all about.

First of all, workers choose to organize for all sorts of reasons. It’s not always about money, money, money. In 2018, for instance, thousands of presumably well-paid Google employees walked out to protest the company’s multi-million dollar payouts to executives accused of sexual misconduct, amongst other things.[1]

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume one of your staff’s demands is better pay.

Yes – of course you and your neighbors would be more sympathetic if they were already doing a fantastic job. But would you be willing to pay them more?

I’m not so sure.

Maybe you’d make any increase contingent on their doing even more, or working even harder­. After all, that’s what a ‘raise’ is for, isn’t it?

But far more likely, I suspect, is that your co-op would simply do what o’ so many other organizations with an eye on the bottom line would do in this situation: Continue to pay the staff their current wages for as long as they can. If they don’t like it…well, there’s the door. And as ‘progressive’ as you claim to be regarding worker’s rights, would you really be willing to fight your condo’s board on this – especially if it meant increasing your association fees?

One way employers like to think about employees (or their efforts) is as a ‘product’ that they ‘purchase’ with a wage.[2] It’s not a mentality I at all agree with, but it’ll be helpful in making a broader point.

In a ‘free’ market, better products tend to cost more. For instance, if you want a high-performing automobile—like a Ferrari—you expect to pay more for it. By this same logic, if you want a higher-performing or more industrious staff, you can expect to pay more for them too. So if a piece of your ‘fire and then re-hire’-strategy includes better wages for this not-yet-hired, future staff, I won’t argue with you.

But why go to the trouble?

You see, people aren’t products – nor do they behave like them. If, for instance, you somehow negotiate a rock-bottom price for that Ferrari, you still get a Ferrari. The car can’t suddenly decide to handle like a Pinto because it’s upset with how little you paid for it.

But people can do precisely that. Underpay them, and their performance is apt to reflect this.

So skip the pink-slip-then-replace approach. Instead, suggest that your condo association raise wages now (or concede to whatever other demand the staff may have, if possible). My bet is that by paying them more, your staff’s performance will immediately improve.

And if your condo association can’t afford an increase?

Respect the staff’s efforts to unionize anyway, and let them know that you do (that way at least, your packages won’t to go missing). Then simply realize that your new home may not be of the ‘race car’-quality you thought it was when you bought into it.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but for that, you may have to pay a little more.

 

NOTES:

[1] Wakabayashi, Daisuke, Erin Griffith, Amie Tsang, and Kate Conger. “Google Walkout: Employees Stage Protest Over Handling of Sexual Harassment”. New York Times, Nov. 18, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/04/technology/google-employees-union.html Retrieved Jan. 20, 2023.

[2] A passage in General Principles of Management by Henri Fayol (1916) is perhaps a typical reflection of this attitude: “Renumeration of personnel is the price of services rendered [my emphasis].” From: Classics of Organization Theory (5th Ed.) Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott. 2001. (New York: Harcourt), p. 52. However, there can be little doubt that this mentality in part stems from unfortunate legacy of human enslavement—a ‘labor market’ in which workers were actually purchased—and other historical forms of forced labor.

[ 1 Comment ]

  1. Jim H

    100% correct on all counts. Here’s another way, too, to increase the odds of your package being delivered & people looking up from texting when you come in: treat them like fellow human beings & try to apply the golden rule. They’re just trying to get by, probably much like you. Kindness is never wasted

    Reply

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