Unionized Workers: Blessing or Curse?

Legislators in Michigan recently 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 unions–has become an important plank in conservative agendas around the US.

So are parking systems better off with unionized or non-unionized employees? Like many management and policy issues, it all depends.

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 Minneapolis city firefighter. But only one of my siblings is 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 that can happen). I now own my own business and have been on the management side of things for most of the past 40 years.

Having managed or consulted with many parking systems and business improvement districts, I have my reservations about whether or not our 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.

On 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. My grandfather was literally driven out of Missoula by the sawmill bosses, who threatened him and his family. But some unions today have become anachronisms, fighting against even the most basic forms of employee performance evaluation. In one city where I worked, supervisors were forbidden to conduct even the most basic annual reviews of city employees by the union contract.

Many parking systems today are unionized, and seem to work well. Perhaps the industry should study these and extrapolate lessons to be learned, with an ultimate goal of crafting a 21st century model of management-employee relations. We might well lead the way for both public employee unions and private sector unions.

About Dave Feehan

Dave Feehan is president and CEO of Civitas Consultants LLC and former president of the International Downtown Association. He is a member of IPI's Accreditation Committee and a frequent contributor to various professional journals. He is working on a new book, Design Downtown for Women - Men will Follow.

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