May 8, 2009

May 8, 2009 | Commentary on Regulation, Labor

Give Union Workers Merit Boost

Why not change the law to let your employer pay you more if you do a great job?

Excuse me?! They can do that already, right?

Not if you're one of 8 million union members working under a collective bargaining agreement. These agreements structure pay for all workers. They set a negotiated "floor" for wages, assuring that each worker is legally protected against from being paid less than the negotiated rate.

The snag is, these agreements also set a legally enforceable ceiling on pay, even for the best workers.

Say you work in a graphic design firm or government printing division and want to get on in the world. Maybe you go and take a class on your own dime to sharpen your skills. Then, instead of surreptitiously watching late afternoon reruns of "Grey's Anatomy" on your computer (like some of your co-workers), you focus on your work and turn in consistently first-rate products.

You know you're outperforming everyone else, so one day you go to your boss and ask for the higher pay you deserve.

She agrees you are deserving and doesn't want to lose you. But if you're in a union shop, your boss' hands are legally tied. Because you work under a collective bargaining agreement, the National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for her to give you a merit raise or even hand you a bonus unless it's first negotiated with the union.

Typically a union doesn't want the boss to decide who's done a good job. And your co-workers watching "Grey's"certainly don't.

What if your employer wants to go to the mat and put into place a merit pay and bonus plan on top of the current agreement? Unless it involves some kind of objective assessment that takes employer judgment out of the equation, your boss could end up in court. And chances are she would lose.

"Objective" plans might be fine if you simply made more widgets than the next guy. That just involves counting. But it isn't so easy to be objective if you are good because you design the best newsletter in the department.

Or you are a great kindergarten teacher, and the kids and parents adore you.

Or you are the kind of security guard who is the epitome of vigilance during the night shift while others doze or read the newspaper.

My colleague, James Sherk, has a simple solution to this rigid and unfair situation that discourages excellence: Amend the law that puts a ceiling on the wages of more than 8 million Americans, and let employers under collective bargaining agreements reward workers who go the extra mile.

Some lawmakers are listening. Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, and Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, are poised to introduce next weeka billto amend the National Labor Relations Act to permit higher pay for unionized workers who produce superior work.

Reward for quality work? That used to be the pathway to the American dream for hard-working people. But today, for millions, it's illegal. That needs fixing.

By looking at employees not covered by such agreements, Mr. Sherk estimates that removing the pay ceiling on affected workers would enable high-performing unionized workers to earn an additional pay of $2,600 to $4,300 a year.

The unions will no doubt raise objections. But they don't hold water.

Could extra pay and bonuses be used to reward anti-union workers and penalize the others? No, the proposal wouldn't touch the many legal provisions designed to stop that.

Wouldn't the proposal undermine worker solidarity and union cohesion? No, it merely gives the best unionized employees a chance to do better and not feel unfairly held back by their own union.

The fastest growing employment sectors these days are based on knowledge and creative skills. Collective bargaining agreements in these areas may provide protections and a good basic pay structure. But rigid pay rules frustrate talented people who should have the chance to earn the rewards they deserve and climb the economic ladder. It's time to remove that legally imposed glass ceiling.

Stuart Butler is vice president for domestic policy issues for the Heritage Foundation.

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First appeared in the Washington Times