Posted on Oct 05, 2009
John M Grau
Are humans inherently good or evil? That is one of the classic debates in the history of philosophy and religion.
The question came to mind as I watched the Labor Relations Special Session at the NECA Convention in Seattle. I was hearing and seeing examples of local labor-management committees in action. The underlying message was one of cooperation. The presenters talked about how they worked to break down barriers of mistrust to develop programs to promote and advance the electrical industry in their areas.
I started to wonder why labor and management are so distrustful to begin with. And that lead me to the debate of good versus evil.
In many ways, I think how we view human nature colors the way we see the labor-management relationship.
Over the years, I’ve heard some electricians describe their employers as greedy, insensitive louts who take delight in mistreating their workers. There are also electricians who admire their employers and are grateful for the jobs and benefits they provide.
I know electrical contractors who view union electricians as self-centered, lazy bums who barely work and will steal anything that’s not tied down. Then, there are contractors who value the labor of their employees and are grateful for their time, dedication, and loyalty.
Most of us don’t have such clearly delineated views. But we have to admit that do have prejudices, whether borne out of experience or just our beliefs about human nature.
In times of economic stress like we are experiencing now, these underlying beliefs magnify our reaction to events. When employers bargain for wage reductions in order to be competitive, the distrustful union member will see it as just another example of a greedy employer taking it out on the backs of labor. Other union members may be hurt that the employer they so trusted and depended on is not taking care of them in their time of need.
Overcoming these deep-seated beliefs takes a lot of effort. The presenters at the NECA Convention talked about how long and hard they worked to build even a minimal level of trust. It wasn’t the result of one meeting, but many meetings, over many months or even years.
While none of this solves the debate over whether we are inherently good or evil, we do know that it’s possible to forge a productive working relationship between management and labor, employers and employees. The alternative is to accept that human nature is what it is, that nothing will change. And, of course, for those who hold that belief, it won’t.