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Do engineers belong in professional unions?

Do Engineers Belong In Professional Unions?

Despite economic hardships and "me generation" ethics, today engineers are still dedicated to traditional professional values. Challenging work and opportunity for advancement continue to be the principal motivator for most engineers. However, many engineers are unaware of the existence of engineering unions - mainly because those unions have managed to stay out of the limelight. Some maintain such a low profile that at those companies where they do exist, newly hired engineers discover they are being represented by a union only after they have been hired. Usually there is no option but to join the union.

Even with a notable lack of publicity, engineering unions as we know them today have been around for a very long time - many of them formed in the 1930s and early 1940s. Currently, they represent approximately one of every nine engineers - "titled" engineers or those persons performing only engineering duties - not those in management, or owners and partners in engineering firms. With the expanding frontiers of engineering and the increasing complexity of product and production systems, there is a growing need for accelerated increases in productivity. These all point to the need for engineers to make optimum professional contributions to engineering and to society. With all the problems faced by engineers and the profession, do unions belong in engineering or do engineers belong in unions? If unions belong in engineering, how does that affect productivity?

Some have argued that engineering unions would not exist - or be needed - if those unionized companies were properly run and the engineering group was well-treated and rewarded accordingly. The union itself contends that organization is essential to help protect engineers from job-related problems such as unpaid overtime, salaries not keeping pace with inflation, layoff procedures that border on age discrimination, and managers that are unresponsive to suggestions and complaints, to name a few. On the other hand, others contend that engineering unions do more harm than good and have actually hurt American productive competitiveness. Most engineers themselves do not think of the union as a way to solve work-related problems. Most have a strong streak of individualism and would prefer to deal one-on-one with their company or supervisors in resolving any job related problems they may face. In addition, most engineers are well aware that their skills and knowledge make it relatively easy for them to find employment elsewhere. If engineers do not like the working conditions or management at a company, they can simply go to a different company. Managers of companies employing large numbers of engineers realize this and, therefore, try very hard to keep engineers satisfied. Why then do engineers fight unionization?

Several factors have kept unionism from becoming widespread in the engineering community. These same factors will continue to stave off attempts of unionizing engineers unless engineers or those companies that employ them change drastically. The change(s) much be such that the engineers become dissatisfied and disenfranchised with their work and company.

Professionalism - Most engineers regard themselves as professionals, and therefore do not see the need for union affiliation. Unions, they say, are more suited for blue-collar workers who, in most cases, are the most vulnerable in terms of compensation, growth, and the ability to find other jobs. For engineers, the union is an institution that encourages rigid work rules and ethics, featherbedding, buck-passing and strike-happy union leaders. As in most fields, professional status is attained through licensing, which requires having to take a series of written examinations. In unionized companies, licensing is seen as unfair competition and is discouraged by the union and overlooked by the company. Since the union contract dictates job qualifications, anything above and beyond minimum requirements is disregarded by the union and must often be overlooked by the company. More training skills will seldom help secure better opportunity. Therefore, for those engineers who believe in self-worth and professional growth this becomes a decided disadvantage.

Teamwork and Competition - Through its various lab and field classes, the engineer's curriculum is designed to foster and promote team work and competition. Most engineers are competitors of a very high degree and therefore understand the need for teamwork to get the job done.

In this era of rapid technological changes, engineers are forced to change with the times. Engineering companies are being forced to adhere to these changes in order to withstand the new global war called competition. It has now become a question of innovating or folding. Most engineers understand this and wholeheartedly welcome competition between companies and peers. In short, they see their profession as a lifelong educational process with no room for people who are not willing to accept changes as they come. On the other hand, the union does not encourage free exchange and sharing because it views jobs as entities to hold on to until retirement or death - whichever comes first. Sharing job information and ideas between members in that case establish them as a potential threat to one another.

Since engineers are not encouraged to share information, compete among themselves or strive beyond those activities negotiated into their contracts, they may lose touch with the spirit of teamwork and competitiveness. After all, they cannot be compelled to do anything that is outside their contract.

Promotions and Incentive - Engineers value material rewards highly. This desire is counter-balanced by a strong sense of responsibility toward their jobs and a willingness to work hard for what they receive. But this dedication is the basis for the feeling on the part of the typical engineer that he deserves more compensation. Promotion within the union is, in most cases, within the ranks and hierarchy. The major criteria for promotion is seniority - so much so that if a senior engineer should file a grievance for non-promotion for whatsoever reason, there is a 95 percent chance that the arbitrator will rule in favor of the engineer. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see most senior engineers holding to the adage that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," forgetting that the changing phases of technology demands "new tricks" or "miracles" to withstand today's competition. Rewards and incentives are, therefore, usually not meted out equitably in unionized companies. Pay is usually contractually determined using factors such as seniority of "length of stay" in the union as opposed to academic qualifications, prior work experience or overall performance. It would not be wrong to consider a person's "length of stay" in a company as a criteria for rewarding the individual, as long as that also equates to job performance or some measurable job output. As with most other companies, engineering-unionized companies do not have any form of periodic employer-employee reviews where the engineer is given a retention credit based on a combination of performance, time with the company, time in engineering and educational level. All engineers are then ranked according to the number of retention credits obtained and rewarded accordingly.

Growth - For most engineers, management is the career path of choice because it offers more control, authority, and better "perks" than staying in engineering. Even in companies with dual career paths in place, many engineers join in the hope of someday becoming at least a manager. Engineers not aiming for executive status are often interested in someday starting their own businesses. As a result, most engineers end up identifying more with supervision and/or management.

In unionized companies, and adversarial relationship is automatically set up between management and the union, each viewing the other as the "bad guy." In this case, it becomes unlikely that companies would choose future supervisors or managers from a pool of unionized engineering workers. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for these companies to hire new managers from the outside, especially those with diverse backgrounds, including marketing or finances.

Working Conditions - According to recent surveys, good working conditions and adequate equipment and facilities are not the major motivating factors in job satisfaction for engineers. However, companies that provide their technological professionals with modern facilities and tools have a decided advantage over those that supply only the minimum in this regard.

It is also true that most engineers, especially those in organized unions, enjoy exceptionally good salaries and benefits compared to those of the average wage earner. As a matter of fact, engineers rank as the third highest paid group of professionals behind doctors and lawyers. However, because of the type of relationship between organized labor and management, unionized engineers may not work in clean, modern offices and are more likely to be exposed to dangerous working conditions. This is due in part to the fact that management does not expect the union to renege from their contractual obligation and do not see the need to provide any more comfort to the engineers unless it is negotiated in the contract.

Work space is a particular bone of contention with engineers. Not only do they want a roomy work area, they also expect a certain amount of privacy. Yet the practice of lumping a host of engineers together and expecting them to perform creatively is still very prevalent in most unionized companies. This is not surprising since the union can only thrive in companies with a large number of technical personnel.

Job Security - The two main security forces that help motivate most engineers are personal security and company security. Personal in the knowledge that the engineer will be given a fair chance to keep his present job and, in time, an opportunity to move up into a higher position. On the other hand, he also needs the assurance that the company is keeping up with others in the field and will remain a viable entity in the marketplace. Most engineering unions see personal security as the most important benefit of collective bargaining.

Most non-union engineers work under fire-at-will contracts. That is, the company can terminate their services at anytime without explanation. And some engineers, especially those over fifty years of age, worry that companies might use fire-at-will as a way to make room for younger, lower-paid engineers. The engineering unions address this issue by including a just-cause provision in the employment contracts. These clauses force a company to explain why individuals are fired. These contracts usually include procedures for arbitrating dismissal and also provisions for recalls.

Layoffs, or force reductions, are also covered in union contracts. However, if there is a layoff, those usually affected are those at the bottom of the seniority list. If an engineer high on the seniority ladder, is to be let go for any reason, the company must supply the more senior engineer with the job description of every engineer skipped. If the engineer feels that he is qualified for any of those jobs, he can challenge the layoff and take it to arbitration. Performance and contribution are usually not considered. In the end, unionized companies, in most cases, lay off performers while retaining personnel that might be regarded as "dead wood." Or, they may be compelled to maintain a large overhead count in order to retain performing employees.

Contrary to all the stereotypes that one might have about unions, they still have a job to perform. Without unions as "watch dogs," management could lean more towards the stockholders and give very little consideration to its workers. Most workers, therefore, need a champion in their struggle for respect, equitable working conditions, and compensation.

Whether or not the union belongs in engineering is a question of need and value. It has often been argued that the engineering union is a product of poor, short-sighted management and a lack of regard and respect for the engineer. If that is true, and there is a need for a unionized body, another fundamental question that needs to be answered is whether or not the union helps the engineer see himself as a professional, able to give a little more than expected of him or, enables him to view his profession as a means to an end. In the case of value, a lot could be said about the survival of any company in today's marketplace. It is, however, safe to assume that the survival of any company is dependent on how well they can compete in that particular market. That measure is, in turn, dependent on how well the company is being managed and how well its workers are performing - engineers included.

By a recent survey, engineers chose "interesting work" over "prestige" and "reputation" as their most important work need. This, they also asserted, keeps them from moving to another job. This potent motivator, along with the sense of personal and professional growth that goes with it, overrides many other seemingly important job-satisfaction considerations. This picture is especially important for managers who are trying to get the most out of their engineering staffs and who, in most unionized companies, are limited by contractual obligations.

Satisfaction and challenge are not the only reasons why engineers are highly interested in their work. Professional status also plays a big part. Much of an engineer's standing in the eyes of his peers is determined by the importance and results of his projects. The more important the work, the more recognition he gets within his company and field of expertise. Another ingredient of "interesting work" is the sense of freedom that engineers have when performing creatively. They abhor red tape and rigid policies which they see as obstacles to effective work performance.

Engineers are risk-takers and, as such, believe that advancement reinforces their sense of self-worth and professional growth. They also believe that such advancement should be primarily based on merit and competence and not on politics, favoritism, or seniority systems. These factors, they claim, have contaminated the advancement system in unionized companies. Since the more career-involved engineer is apt to be one whose work emphasizes pushing back technical frontiers, he is at a decided disadvantage when competing with colleagues who specialize in union politics. Where does all this leave the unionized companies? These companies lose in most cases. They often become less and less competitive and profitable. They may merge with other companies. They may export work overseas. They may close.

After all is said, this writer believes that unions should be kept out of engineering - and vice versa.

ETIM SAMUEL EKONG works for Unisys Corporation in Great Neck, New York. Until recently, he was also an instructor at the Weymouth Business Institute of New York. He is the author of numerous technical presentations and publications in conference proceedings and transactions. He earned a BS degree at the University of Washington and an MS degree at Georgia Tech. He is a member of a professional union.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Perspective
Author:Ekong, Etim Samuel
Publication:Industrial Management
Article Type:editorial
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Words:2437
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