I once worked in a small security booth in downtown LA. The capacity was exactly for one person sitting down. But each shift had two security guards. To fit in the booth, both guards had to stand up. One of the guards who often interrupted my sitting and forced me to stand up was Lance. After so many years at the job, Lance was tired of working as a security guard. The pay was low, the hours were inconvenient and there were no opportunities for growth. One of the janitors told him that he would make more money if he worked with them instead. Depending on seniority, he could eventually become team lead. Plus he would be part of a union, so no one could ever fire him.
This was 2006 and he was making around $12 an hour. Almost double the minimum wage, but not enough for the head of a household. Lance applied for the janitorial position. After months of waiting and sporadic interviews, he got the job. A month into his new position, he came back to the booth where I was once again forced to stand up. He got in, let the door close, with his fist clenched, he banged the desk. He was angry.
In his new position, he was making a couple more dollars per hour. Which was great. But the problem was, now he had to pay union fees. These fees brought him back right where he had started. Except he now had some sort of benefits he didn't care about. Every day, he would come into the booth where he no longer worked, force me to stand up, and then complain about how much he regretted changing jobs.
Lance and those sharing a similar experience, shaped my views on labor unions in the US. A union is an entity that comes between you and your employer and manages to siphon a portion of your income. The only benefits here is that the company would have to jump through hoops if they ever wanted to fire you. But how beneficial is that if you are not planning to make a career out the job anyway?
Years later, I started a career as a programmer. Here, no one talked about unions. Whatever unions are, they are non-existent in the tech industry. Except as a punch line. The story of teachers who sat in a room all day twiddling their fingers was a common one. "Even if they are pedophiles, you can't fire them. Some of them actually are" my manager would say. "It's because of the damn unions."
Being a software developer has its perks. We have been working remotely before the pandemic forced us to. All you need is a laptop, a decent Internet connection, and you are a productive member of your team. What this means is that sometimes after work, you might get a message from your manager. He would say something like: "Hey, I found a bug in the application." What's implied is that you have to get to it right away. I often did.
Software developers are generally paid a salary. Any extra hours of work are not considered. No one in my circle ever complained about it. In meetings, our manager would display the team's weekly code commits on a screen. There was a sense of pride when he circled those that were completed in the after-hours. And extra points for those who completed their work in the AM. Those points never translated to real wages.
In 2014, the company I worked for scrambled to be up to code for a potential buyer. Apparently, there was a law in California that protected software engineers from this practice. Where it was a pride and ego booster for me to work after-hours, it was a money saving tactic big companies used to make the most of their workers. They could work their employees 60 to 80 hours a week without spending an extra dime. This was a common practice, especially in video-gaming companies. The industry term is crunch. The last few months before a game is released, companies go in crunch mode. Employees literally sleep under their desk and never leave the office. They work day and night. They even work on the weekend. This is to make sure the game gets released on time.
This felt normal to me. Like it was a necessary evil to get games or applications to deliver on time. Yet, the California Labor Code Section 515.5 was as clear as day. It was there to protect us from this abuse. HR had never mentioned it to me or my coworkers. This led me to take a second look at these unions, to upgrade my naive belief. I needed to understand how these unions were supposed to protect us workers.
From the birth of these United States, unions played two roles. They protected workers from sweatshop work conditions and offered employees bargaining power.
If an employee complained about work conditions or salary, a factory could fire him. The next person eager to make a buck would take his place. Workers united to form a coalition more powerful then the company. A single employee can hardly afford to hire lawyers, spend time and energy to go to court, and still go to work. But a union can mobilize all its members to stage a strike if the demands of employees are not met. Where it is easy to fire and replace a single worker, it is costly to replace the entire fleet.
A recent example was Hostess, the company that made Twinkies. They decided to cut 8% of all wages and reduce workers benefits by 32%. Their employees were part of a union and disagreed with the cuts. So they went on strike. The company refused to rescind the cuts. The union persisted until Hostess filed for bankruptcy and sold the brand to the highest bidder. The new owners still employs from the union today.
There is a price for workers to manufacture a product, provide a service, or keep the building clean. The company needs to pay a livable wage, have reasonable work hours, and provide health benefits. That is what a union guarantees. Naturally, companies are not keen on providing these benefits without the looming threat of union strike. Treating employees well costs money.
As a consequence of unions, States enacted new laws to provide these protections to all workers. You don't need a union today to enjoy a 40-hour work week. Anything more would result in overtime. A higher wage for the worker and a more expensive mandate for the employer. It is against the law to discriminate your employee. There is even a law to protect whistle blowers (WPA) against employers.
Unions memberships are in decline today. Many of the protection that were once only enjoyed by union members are now available to all workers. The law prevents child labor. It protects against gender and race discrimination. It mandates workers safety. It's hard to find the exclusive benefits of a union.
We can argue that there is no need for a union now that the State offers those same protection. In fact, that is the ultimate goal. But the reality is that, despite the laws and protections, women are still harassed in the workplace. Black people are filtered out of the job candidates pool. Workers are seeing smaller paychecks and enjoying fewer benefits. Game companies are still getting away with overworking their employees. What gives?
There is another entity that has taken over the role of unions for workers. When employees have problems in the workplace, they contact the Human Resources Department or HR.
Every company that grows to a certain size ends up with HR. This department caters to the needs of the employees. It is here to provide information about financial and health benefits. It is here to help resolve conflicts among workers. It is here to give a voice to the employees. But unlike an independent party like unions, HR is part of the company. Most often then not, when there is a conflict, HR will side with the company. Not the workers.
When Susan Fowler reported sexual harassment at Uber, HR dismissed her complaint. In fact, she was berated for sharing detailed records of the incidents through email.
HR is also in charge of hiring workers. The law is clear when it comes to discrimination. It is strictly forbidden. A two year study lead by Katherine DeCelles, at the University of Toronto showed that discrimination is routine. She found that candidates with a black or Asian sounding name are less likely to get a call from an interviewer.
HR is in charge of providing information about labor laws, work hours, or workplace rules. Yet, the same HR department is absent when workers are forced to sleep under their desk to meet deadlines.
Employees are less and less protected in the workplace. It is easy to see why people are thinking about unions again.
Earlier this year, I went back to my old job at the security booth. I was hoping to find Lance still working there, maybe as a team lead, or at a higher position. But the new employees couldn't find any record of him. In fact, they don't have an in-house janitorial crew anymore. They use one of those startups that hires gig workers to come clean the building. The workers are independent contractors with a flexible schedule and no benefits whatsoever.
These new gig workers do not figure in the unemployment rate. They have a job, but their livelihoods rests on the whims of an app developer. HR only provides apparent protection to workers, as long as it lines up with the employer's requirements. Unions are costly to employers, so companies will fight tooth and nail before letting them back in.
The HR department is the evolution of unions in the private sector. Although if we want it to truly protect workers in the modern workplace then we have to evolve it one more time.
In the public sector, more than a third of workers are part of a union. They enjoy greater benefits, they endure less discrimination, and they work reasonable hours. The private sector has convinced its workers that unions are a net negative. Recently, Amazon was caught trying to hire analysts that can detect and foil any attempts from workers trying unionize. If we are not going to get unions, we might as well borrow a thing or two from the public sector.
What I propose is a Public Human Resources or PHR. The role of a PHR is essentially the same as your traditional HR, only here the conflict of interest and company loyalty is removed. PHR is a public body that works in the interest of the workers. When a company grows to the point that they need an HR manager, they can hire a public licensed HR manager. This one will do traditional HR work and ensure that the company complies with state laws.
The PHR department is still funded by the company, but it operates as service provider from the State. When it comes to growth, their goal aligns with that of the company. But when it comes to workers right and treatment, they report to the state.
This forces companies to follow rules and regulation that benefit workers. Employees get to have someone of influence they can complain to or bargain with. If there is mistreatment, they have PHR on their side.
Today, we rely on the benevolence of companies to pay their worker fairly or not to abuse of them. Employees have to sign hundreds of pages of documents to ensure they won't sue the employer. The employer has nothing to sign and can end a contract on a whim. Unions are not coming back. They are easily dismantled before they reach critical mass, and it's all legal. The law to protect workers is clear, but it is hard to enforce in the black boxes that companies are. Turning the HR department into a public entity is the easiest way to protect workers. It helps enforce the law from within, without reinventing the workforce.
I'm working with experts in the field to develop the details of a Public Human Resources in the coming months. Some brave companies are working with us to gather real world data. If you have feedback or would like to share some ideas please comment below.