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Labor unions in a post-industrial age

The us/them mindset of the successful industrialist led to the inevitable and essential creation of labor unions. If, as Smith and Marx wrote, owning the means of production transfers maximum value to the factory owner, the labor union provided a necessary correction to an inherently one-sided relationship.

Industrialism is based on doing a difficult thing (making something) ever cheaper and more reliably. The union movement is the result of a group of workers insisting that they be treated fairly, despite the fact that they don't own the means of production. Before globalism, unions had the ability to limit the downward spiral of wages.

But what happens when the best jobs aren't on the assembly line, but involve connection, creation and art? What happens when making average stuff isn't sufficient to be successful? When interactions and product design and unintended (or intended) side effects are at least as important as Frederick Taylor measuring every motion and pushing to get it done as cheaply as possible?

Consider what would happen if a union used its power (collective bargaining, slowdowns, education, strikes) to push management to take risks, embrace change and most of all, do what's right for customers in a competitive age…

What if the unionized service workers demanded the freedom to actually connect with those that they are serving, and to do it without onerous scripts and a focus on reliable mediocrity? 

What would have happened to Chrysler or GM if the UAW had threatened to strike in 1985 because the design of cars was so mediocre? Or if the unions had pushed hard for more and better robots, together with extensive education to be sure that their workers were the ones designing and operating them?

Or, what if the corrections union, instead of standing up for the few bad apples, pushed the system to bring daylight and humanity to their work, so that more dollars would be available for their best people?

There's a massive cultural and economic shift going on. Senior management is slowly waking up to it, as are some unions. This sort of shift feels risky, almost ridiculous, but it's a possible next step as the workers realize that their connection to the market and the internet gives them more of the means of production than ever before.

Without a doubt, there's a huge challenge in ensuring that the people who do the work are treated with appropriate respect, dignity and compensation. It's not happening nearly enough. But in an economy that rewards the race to the top so much more heavily than cutting costs a few dollars, unions have a vested interest in pushing each of their members to reject the industrial sameness that seems so efficient but ultimately leads to a race to the bottom, and jobs (their jobs), lost.

The circus is coming to town

Too often, we wait. We wait to get the gig, or to make the complex sale, or to find the approval we seek. Then we decide it's time to get to work and put on our show.

The circus doesn't work that way. They don't wait to be called. They show up. They show up and sell tickets.

When you transform the order of things, the power shifts. "The circus is going to be here tomorrow, are you going?" That's a very different question than, "are you willing to go out on a limb and book the circus? If you are, we'll come to town…"

People respond to forward motion. Auctions are always more exciting than "price available on request."

Stupid is the brand killer

When you make your customer feel stupid, you've given him no choice. He needs to blame you.

Some ways to make people feel stupid:

  • Charge different prices at different outlets and shrug your shoulders when you get found out.
  • Insist that the warranty ends precisely the day you said it would. 
  • Give new customers a great discount for signing up, but tell long-term customers that they're out of luck.
  • Make your expensive items less networked, less powerful and less reliable than your cheaper ones.
  • Give your customers a product, idea or service that causes them to be ridiculed or shamed by people they hope to impress.
  • Sell the private data you get from customers to other marketers without asking first.
  • Put the important information in your terms and conditions, in little tiny type.
  • Collect money as though you're in the long-term relationship business, but in every other way, act like you don't expect the relationship to last.
  • Talk about your customers (students/clients/members) behind their back in a way you'd never talk to their face (hint: it'll get back to them).
  • Lower your pricing but don't honor it for people who just bought from you. That shrug again.
  • Scold someone because the last three people already heard you just answer that question (but we didn't…)
  • Assume the worst about a customer's intent, intelligence and background.

Most people (particularly the customers you seek) don't mind paying a little extra if it comes with dignity, confidence and a smile.

Sorry confusion

There are two kinds of, "I'm sorry."

The first kind is the apology of responsibility, of blame and of litigation. It is the four-year old saying to his brother, "I'm sorry I hit you in the face." And it is the apology of the surgeon who forgot to insert sterile dressings and almost killed you.

The other kind of sorry is an expression of humanity. It says, "I see you and I see your pain." This is the sorry we utter at a funeral, or when we hear that someone has stumbled. 

You don't have to be in charge to say you're sorry. You don't even have to be responsible. All you need to do is care.

In this case, "I'm sorry," is precisely the opposite of, "I'm sorry you feel that way," which of course pushes the other person away, often forever.

As we've been busy commercializing, industrializing and lawyering the world, countless bureaucrats have forgotten what it means to be human, and have forgotten how much it means to us to hear someone say it, and mean it. "I'm sorry you missed your flight, and I can only imagine how screwed up the rest of your trip is going to be because of it."

"I see you," is what we crave.