Monday, February 24, 2014

How to Work With Unions

For good or for bad, engineers and union workers often find themselves on opposite sides of the table. It is the privilege of engineers to be able to design systems and have them realized by union workers with years of practical experience (although we may not always remember that). That said, we often come to the same project with very different perspectives and sometimes different objectives.

Growing up, I honestly don't think I knew a single union worker. My first interaction directly with union workers was during a mandatory safety training course at my customer's site. I was the only engineer (and of course one of two women) out of a class of around forty union workers. As with any course, I came with a notebook and pencil and was fervently taking notes on lecture slides. Sure, the material wasn't particularly riveting, but I'd been trained to stay focused and engaged by taking precise notes during lectures in school.

Ten minutes in, I noticed I was the only one taking notes. In fact, instead of a notebook about a quarter of the guys brought a bottle to collect the spit from their chewing tobacco. The slides were broken up with the occasional, unmistakable sound of spit hitting the bottom of a mostly empty container.

Why yes, I am one of those children scarred by the photos chewing tobacco causing mouth cancer shown in elementary school.
It wasn't long before I realized that this wasn't the type of class where you bring a notebook. In a three hour long class, there was a solid half an hour of gifs of people falling on their face, or unsuspecting men getting hit in balls. It was totally unrelated to the course, and I was not amused. I had deadlines looming, and it seemed like a total waste of time.

But the guys loved it. The entire time, they let out earth shaking laughs, slapped their knees and yelled, "Did you see that?" "That's GOTTA hurt!" "Ooh!"

It was in this class, with my glasses and notepad, that I realized I was totally out of my element in the world of union workers. I'd come from the world of theory and academics, and they had gone to the school of hard knocks. This only became more obvious when my first projects were installed, and I started to break unspoken rules about unions that I didn't know existed.

So here are a few tips to help you from making the same mistakes:

1) Don't do union work. This is the number one way to piss off union workers. And it is honestly more complicated than it sounds. I've accidentally happened upon my fair share of union grievances because I was trying to help out. Ask your client what type of unions they have, and plan your work accordingly. As an engineer, I've found it is best to stay as far out of these union business dealings as possible.

2) Take experience seriously. So they may not have an engineering degree from a fancy school, but sometimes talking to a person who actually worked on building the system can help fix mysterious glitches. That doesn't mean they are always right, but their experience could save your ass.

3) Don't talk about union issues. Union workers sometimes will talk to you or in front of you about issues that relate to their work. Do not participate in these conversations. If they end up being issues that go to a vote, you can be accused of trying to persuade union votes (which is bad, since you are an engineer and therefore part of "the man" that they are fighting). A friend of mine got a grievance filed against her for saying, "Man, that really sucks" the day of a vote she didn't know was happening.

4) Remember that trades people aren't engineers. While you should always treat people with respect and take people's opinions seriously (as in tip #2), you need to remember that you supposedly have a unique knowledge of systems and equations. Do not take advice that does not make sense. You've been hired onto a project because it needs somebody who can crunch the numbers and make sure things are safe. Shortcuts may be easier to install, but don't let them slide if you can't prove them in theory.

These tips should help smooth over the sometimes tumultuous relationship between engineers and union workers. In the end, when both sides participate, it is a blend of experience that creates amazing systems.



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