Unhealthy workplaces: Are unions the cure?

Manhattan’s Greenwich Village regularly features in lists of the country’s most expensive neighbourhoods. It’s easy to forget that it was once home to sweatshops with such appalling conditions that they gave birth to a national drive for improving workplace safety.      

Just over 100 years ago, 145 workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company burned, suffocated, and jumped to death. To keep workers in (ostensibly to prevent theft, likely to prevent bathroom breaks), the owners had locked stairwell and exit doors.

The tragedy spurned a new drive towards safe workplaces – and the drive would be led by labour unions. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was soon successfully able to unionize 90% of New York’s textile workers.

Working in concert with activists, for the first time state lawmakers were pressured into acting on worker safety. Investigations of over 2,000 sweatshops led to new safety laws to address widespread shortcomings, and new laws led to the creation of the State Department of Labor to enforce them.

The same coalition of labour and activists that pressured New York lawmakers in the fire aftermath successfully campaigned for national labour legislation, culminating in FDR’s Labour Relations Act as part of the New Deal.

I have spent over a decade working with unions as a management representative. I have great respect for the labour movement and its historical contributions to worker well being. However, we have strong reasons to question its relevancy in today’s work environment given its failure to respond to the serious contemporary workplace challenges of stress, mental health issues, and bullying.

From blue to white

The buildings in Manhattan that once housed sweatshops now house the workshops of a white-collar knowledge economy. Almost universally, private sector white-collar firms are non-unionized. So are we to conclude that the workplaces are healthy for employees, and that collective representation is no longer needed?

The human toll of unhealthy workplaces might not appear as dramatic as the mass-casualty events of earlier eras: stress and bullying are silent on the surface, but still inflict horrific tolls on workers, families, and the economy.

Earlier this year, researchers from Stanford and Harvard found that workplace stress is responsible for around 120,000 deaths in the US annually. That’s four times the toll of car crashes, four times the toll of gun deaths, and 70% more than Alzheimer’s disease.

When translated into monetary terms, the mental and physical maladies incurred on the job are just as stunning: $180 billion in health care costs (8% of the total), and $300 billion in lost productivity.

Americans are literally being worked to death – and the labour movement isn’t just absent, it’s actively receding.

Today, 11% of employees belong to a union. That’s the lowest-ever recorded figure, and a 12% drop even from a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The story is even worse in high-growth white collar sectors: only 4% of tech and 1% of finance workers are unionized.

“Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk”

Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s brilliant expose on Amazon’s working conditions give us a first-hand look at the harrowing stories behind the statistics.

An employee who suffered a miscarriage of twins had her career threatened by her boss: “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the place for you.” A female employee battling breast cancer was told that “difficulties” in her “personal life” were harming her output, and again threatened with termination.

Reports are common of employees regularly breaking down in tears – so it’s no surprise that the average employee tenure at Amazon is just 1 year.

If unions can’t organize in a large firm with an environment as extreme as this, then they have no hope for making any inroads in the 21st century economy.

Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos claims not to have known about the extremes suffered by his workforce. That’s not uncommon, but does not exempt him from responsibility.

Even if management is concerned about employee welfare, but genuinely unaware, unions are an invaluable tool for informing management about the workforce’s situation. That is, if the union does have its members best interests at heart.

Bullying at the hands of unions

It’s not just that the labour movement is failing in its duty to fight unhealthy workplaces. In some cases, unions are actually the cause.

Like employers, union leadership can sometimes fixate on reaping short-term gains at the expense of long-term viability. But instead of pushing employees past healthy limits, unions are prone to placing excessive pressure in the other direction: bullying and sabotaging the career of employees who perform better than their peers, or suggest ways for the workforce to improve productivity.

Let’s look at the case of Patrick, formerly an urban planner for a large North American city, and a member of the city’s union.

In July of 2009, the city approached the union for concessions to help reduce a major deficit threatening the solvency of the city – and therefore all city jobs.

At a meeting held by the union with members to review cost-cutting ideas, Patrick mentioned that he felt the planning department had over double the capacity suited for the actual workload. Doug, the union representative, lashed-out: “Are you crazy? Never, and I repeat, never raise this again!”

To illustrate the issue, Patrick started finishing all his work by noon, every day. He wasn’t straining himself. He would repeatedly confirm with his supervisors that the quality of his work remained as before.

Doug soon found out about Patrick’s actions, and told him that his job would be at risk if he continued. Concurrently, Patrick began receiving a stream of threatening anonymous phone calls and emails.  

In January of 2010, Patrick was fired for poor performance, with all salary and benefits immediately terminated. The union did not file a grievance. Patrick then suffered a serious heart attack requiring a triple-bypass operation, and has since mounted legal battles against the union and city.

If the labour movement is going to come to the rescue of white-collar workplaces in the private sector, it needs to re-think how it treats its members in the professional organizations they already control.

The void of worker representation

A strong, well-meaning union still wouldn’t be a cure-all. Skilful bullies, and I’ve seen lots of them, are highly accomplished at tricking both management and unions into thinking that the victim is the villain.

But we’re far from even being at that stage. Unlike the early 20th century campaigns to improve physical safety, the fight for mentally healthy workplaces isn’t going to be lead by unions. Non-profits, activists, and friendly legislators are just going to have to work that much harder.