Thursday, May 11, 2006

Strength in Numbers

I had to watch the video of FedEx arrivals into their Memphis hub during a major thunderstorm over and over. Someone has set the time-lapsed radar playback to music, which makes it look a lot like beautifully choreagraphed dancing ants. You can see the flights pick their way through the cells of the advancing storm and work their way into a queue for landing - right up until the storm is directly over the runway, at which point the ants all go running away from the airport, some to come back again after it passes but many finding their way to other nearby airports instead. It's hilarious... and I find myself wanting a voice-over too (Run away!).

Typically, though, I like to keep my love of flying and my interest in severe weather separate. They don't go well together. It's probably why I didn't do a lot of flying when I was in Omaha, which happened to be Stephen Colbert's target on his show Tuesday night. Between that and Jon Stewart's ongoing jabs at the Terre Haute weather team wars, I was feeling sort of deja vu all over again-ish, getting serious flashbacks of my days in small market television.

That, of course, is another story. While I was in Omaha, though, I nearly had a bit of a flashback of a different kind, coming close to getting caught up in a strike of my own, just like I used to see my father go through when I was a kid. Working in television in a lot of U.S. markets means joining up with AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and while I was working in Omaha, the local AFTRA chapter came close to taking action against the station where I worked, placing me in a rather difficult position.

As on-air talent, my contract was considerably different than what most of the rest of the employees had with the station and was negotiated individually. Not surprisingly, the station considered me and the other on-air folks as part of a separate category altogether. They threatened us with harsher action if we honored the picket lines which certainly seemed intimidating at the time and was of course exactly the point.

Needless to say, the rest of the union considered "us" to be part of them along with everyone else and needed our participation to gain the leverage they needed in any kind of strike that might occur. The fact that I essentially agreed with them didn't make being in the middle any easier.

Basically, both sides needed or at least wanted us - our faces, voices, and soubriquets - on their side. I was greatly conflicted (mostly from trying to figure out how not to get sued) and not at all looking forward to making what was sure to have been a difficult decision, should the matter come down to a walk-out. Fortunately, the union and the station were able to come to an agreement and I never had to figure out my part in the situation.

The strikes I lived through as a child always seemed far simpler. No matter how difficult it might be for us as a family, we supported any union action that took place. And my father was always very clear that he understood not everyone was in a position to honor picket lines but he drew the line at enjoying the benefits resulting from such a sacrifice and enjoying continued work (and paycheck) during the strike. That always seemed fair to me.

I learned something else during that time. Going on strike is very, very difficult. I don't wish that on anyone. And what I came to understand back then was that no one likes to go on strike. When it happens, it's because the people feel like it is the only way to get what they want and that what they want is important enough to sacrifice a great deal to get it.

As such, I've always tried to honor any picket lines I come up against in my everyday life, the kind that have nothing to do with me except that they happen to be taking place at the store where I usually shop or the company from whom I usually get my newspaper. I tend to believe that in most cases, they wouldn't be walking the picket lines unless they really thought it was worth it because who in their right minds would willingly put themselves through that trauma if that weren't the case.

Becoming a manager in the tech world shifted my perspective just a bit, seeing what kind of hassles unionization was likely to cause in the places where I worked. When a manager really does try to do the right thing, meeting the demands of a union can be hobbling even while those demands are in place to protect against real-life issues caused by problem owners and managers. As a result, the opinion I've developed over time is that it is in everyone's best interests to do whatever is necessary to avoid the need for unionization, not to avoid unionization itself. If unions are sometimes a necessary evil, avoid the evil part by making them unnecessary.

The tech industry is currently working through the risk analysis for unionization with some folks actively pushing for unionizing technology workers now. There's no doubt in my mind that labor movements are not dead and that they will continue to have value so long as there are forces in the marketplace that push owners and managers to make choices contrary to the best interests of their employees.

When good owners and managers can resist those forces and take a more balanced approach, however, unionization may be premature. Smart owners and managers will recognize that and keep doing their level best to make unionization unnecessary - an obsolete notion - while smart workers will recognize those efforts when they're successful and hold off the unionization call, at least for the time being. While there is no benefit to unionizing before it's really needed, when it is needed, taking advantage of the strength that comes with numbers is the only thing that will work.

Too bad such strength in numbers doesn't work as well against forces of nature but then we wouldn't have had such a cool video to talk about.

Send your stories, thoughts or observations about this column, flying, management, unionization and/or weather phenomona to me at - I'm not picky; I'll work with just about anything

What are the important connections in your life?

Kimm Viebrock is a Certified Professional Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.