The Greatest Lesson I Learned From the Union: Comply and then Complain

I first encountered “the Union” back when I worked at WASA. Electricity would go and then you’d hear someone say “Well if current doh come back in an hour, the union say that we should be sent home.” At which point I began a fervent prayer that the power outage would go beyond an hour! If there was no water (and yes sometimes that did happen even at WASA) – there was another stipulation regarding at what point workers should be sent home for the day. At that time I worked in the personnel department and it was from my then supervisor – who was a member of “the Union” that I learnt the phrase “comply and then complain.”

This has stayed with me forever.

I went on to have two jobs after my tenure at WASA and that phrase stayed put. Whenever I felt the desire to NOT do something – perhaps I thought my supervisor’s instruction was unreasonable – or I just didn’t feel like doing it at the time – whatever “it” was “comply and then complain” surfaced and I carried out the task. It was very clear to me that I had to do whatever I was asked/told to do before I could complain about how unfair it was etc.

Now that I’m working with small businesses, I find many employees complaining. That’s fine. I think a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the position you hold, the pay that you’re earning is healthy. It gives stretch – a desire to be, do and have more. Yet what is absent is compliance.

I’ve seen bosses demand reports and employees respond with “what you want that for?” Granted employees must always be made to see the relevance of any activity as it relates to their job but given my greatest union lesson – this response is disturbing. There are – of course much deeper reasons for the environment which supports this kind of behavior but in this article I just want to focus on the union’s message.

There are so many instances of the tail wagging the dog in businesses today, many I’ve seen firsthand. Every time I think I will not be shocked by anything else – some employee proves me wrong. From refusing to attend training sessions, to procrastinating on providing proper documentation and receipts for purchases made, to refusing to work overtime, to deciding not to wear the company’s uniform and the list goes on.

Is it that in an effort to give everyone a voice we’ve created monsters that we can no longer manage? These employees are way beyond complying. They have severed the union’s message and are just complaining. What I find equally sad is that the union has become the employee’s pit bull of choice to threaten employers and so everyone is walking on egg shells because they don’t want the union to get involved.

I don’t have the room to list all the objectives of a union but I’ll list two:

  1. To obtain and maintain just and proper rates of wages, hours of work and other conditions of labour and generally to protect the interest of its members.
  2. To regulate the relations and to settle disputes, between members and employers, between one member and another or between members and other workers by amicable agreement whenever possible.

This is of course very fair. There are times when workers are being treated unfairly and need representation because they cannot handle the situation on their own.

My concern is the trend I’m seeing where workers are NOT doing what they’re supposed to – forget what they’re being told to do – they’re not performing. Doing the least amount of work to get by, being surly and disrespectful to those they work with and their supervisors, and wielding the “I’ll go to the union sword” every chance they get.

I believe that the reason that we continue to have wage disputes is because we have disconnected the relationship between pay and performance. People expect salary increases because cost of living, utility costs etc have gone up. Understood.

But I do think that we need a dose of honesty in asking ourselves whether we are all working to the best of our ability. Whether we are doing the best job that we are capable of doing. Whether we’re giving of our best? We blame people and things and circumstances for just about everything. Why don’t we first take personal responsibility? Why don’t we all, just as I learnt more than twenty years ago , make sure that we’re doing the best job that we could possibly do – that if someone were to examine our actions that they should find no fault. And if in fact we’re being victimized or ill treated or underpaid then by all means go ahead and voice a complaint but not a second before!

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