Can Engineers Unionize? the Untold Truth!

Can engineers unionize? Of course, but it’s not as common as in other industries and this is because of the Pareto Principle.

Now, what’s the Pareto Principle? 80% of results come from 20% of the action taken.

In the working world, this means 80% of a company’s output will come from 20% of the workforce.

Before we dive more into the 80/20 rule, I want to discuss engineering unionization a little. This way, I can better shine a light on the impact of the 80/20 rule on the unionization of engineers.

Also to note, for this discussion, my focus is only on the unionization of engineers in the U.S.

How common is the push for unions in engineering?

I hear the “U” word thrown around often when certain events unfold at an engineering company. For example:

  • Massive layoffs
  • Supposed terrible long hour working conditions without breaks
  • Management not listening to engineers

Then as frustrations boil over, the murmurs of, “I told you so, we need to unionize!” grow. Engineers like any other type of employee want more rights and power.

This is the formula for controlling your own destiny, right? To protect your self-interests.

So why aren’t unions more common in engineering then? Especially given there were 1.6 million engineers employed in the U.S. in 2015 alone.

It’s because unions aren’t a one size fits all glove.

Unions when done right can greatly benefit both employees and the employer. But, when mismanaged only serving their own interests, they become a nightmare.

Plus, unions aren’t the ideal employment model in every industry. You just can’t force a square peg into a round hole.

The existing unions in engineering in the U.S.

I have some engineer friends in unions, and they love it. They get decent pay with benefits, and they have job security.

But, most of my engineer friends aren’t too fond of unions.

They find the rules that come with unions as cumbersome. To be blunter, they find many of the rules to be bullshit!

For example, electrical engineers need to sometimes inspect a piece of de-energized equipment.

But when you’re in a union, more times than not, you can’t.

You need to jump through many hoops. This starts with filling out a work order request to inspect the equipment.

Then you need to explain why you need to inspect the equipment. When you finally get approval, you’ll need to repeat the process if you want to make any fixes.

Talk about a drawn-out and frustrating process.

Further, working and speaking with many engineers, I hear the following a lot too:

A union can increase the worth of unskilled and unmotivated workers. At the same time, it doesn’t proportionally raise the value of great workers.

These engineers feel they’d get lost in the union structure. They couldn’t showcase their productivity to have their employer properly reward them.

In short, your job role is clearly defined in a union. You need to stay within the confines of your designated role.

This fact alone creates a lot of friction with engineers, as by nature you want to tinker around. Get your hands dirty in many different things.

With that out of the way, let’s dig into the 80/20 rule in the engineering domain. This way, we can better answer the question of, “can engineers unionize?”

80/20 rule explained in the engineering profession

The 80/20 rule rings true in all areas of life I’ve found. This includes engineering.

I compare it to superstar players in the NBA. You have Lebron James, several other stars, and then a bunch of bench warmers on a team.

Take Lebron out of the equation and the team flops. With Lebron James on the roster, the team is instantly a championship contender.

So, the success of a 15 man NBA roster hinges on a single player. Hence why Lebron can demand where he wants to play, while getting a max offered salary.

Now in engineering, some engineers can solve more complex problems than others. These engineers deliver working solutions under budget while meeting project specs.

These are the superstar engineers in the profession who all employers want.

The commoditization of workers in the industry

ford escorts coming down the assembly line in 1970s
Ford Escorts coming down the assembly line in the 1970s (Photo Credit: Pododonnell100)

In 1913, Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line. This opened the door for the mass production of automobiles.

Building a car went from taking 12 hours, to just one hour and 33 minutes.

Now, think about how this car assembly line works. Each worker has a certain task they repeatedly do.

This is called the division of labor.

So, Person A only needs to focus on installing the motor. While Person B’s work is to install the wheels. In this division of labor, Person A doesn’t need to worry about learning how to install wheels.

When workers focus solely on a single task, their work becomes second nature. They master their work, allowing them to pretty much do it in their sleep.

As a result, workers assemble each car perfectly. At the same time, work efficiency skyrockets, and overall production costs plummet.

Standardization of a worker in an assembly line

The work of each person in an assembly line becomes clearly outlined.

This standardization of each person’s work can then be appropriately priced. As the work is clearly fixed with the specs set in stone.

So, if we replace Person A and B with two other people, the carmaker will expect the same output. Not only that, but both new people can perfectly follow the work specs.

There aren’t any unknowns on how to install a wheel. It’s straightforward work that’s not changing.

Thus, the only negotiable variable in our discussion is human labor.

So, what does this all mean?

Any person who fills a position on the assembly line will already have a set placed value on them. All before they even conduct an interview to get hired.

In other words, their economic contribution to the company is well known before they ever pick up a tool.

This is why a carmaker negotiates with the labor union versus thousands of individuals. At the same time, the carmaker will always pay the same price for someone who installs wheels.

Because again, the carmaker has predefined the economic output for this given work. Go back to when you worked at a fast-food place.

If you flipped burgers, you don’t try to negotiate your pay. You get what you’re offered.

A burger flipper has a set in stone pay, set by the employer. Because all burger flippers do the exact same work. They flip meat patties.

Are engineers commodities in the workforce?

golden gate bridge black and white
Golden Gate Bridge (Photo Credit: Angel Origgi)

I could argue some are. Especially lower level engineers who may simply count screws all day.

In short, if your employer can automate your work, then you’ll soon become a commodity. Your work as an engineer then becomes no different than a worker on an assembly line.

What’s more, once you become a commodity, your employer will slash your salary.

That said, for the most part, engineers don’t repeat the same task over and over again. Rather, they analyze, process, research, and problem solve.

Each project requires this level of attention. Also, the work in most instances is always unique from project to project.

For example, designing the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t the same as designing a bridge over a calm river.

In fact, at one time, many thought building the Golden Gate Bridge would be impossible.

I’ve discussed the engineering process behind the Golden Gate Bridge. At the time, it required tremendous creativity, in both design and construction.

The point is, you can’t swap a chief engineer with another and expect the same results. Because engineering work requires the following qualities, which differ from person to person:

  • Rapid spatial reasoning
  • Memory capacity
  • Pattern recognition

Thus, the economic output of an engineer isn’t predefined. Simply because we can’t equally quantify one project to the next.

One small change in project scope can result in hundreds of extra engineering hours.

Even more, the more capable an engineer is, the better the end product you’ll receive.

For example, there’s no way to place a fixed price on the head of engineers who can safely send us to Mars. Especially since no engineers have pulled this off before.

No different than a greatly talented artist, who has unworldly creative skills. Skills we’ve never seen before.

Simply put, you can’t rationally price creativity. Similarly, you can’t attach an economic value to engineering.

Because engineering is an inherently creative profession.

For this reason, engineers can command their own price in the open market. This is a big reason why many engineers don’t want to unionize.

Engineers leveraging the open market with their specialized skills

Engineers have a specialized skillset.

So they can quickly find a new job if needed. Whether from layoffs, firing, or just to find greener pastures.

Many people in certain trades don’t have this luxury. Thus, the union creates a safety net for these workers.

But, when you choose to unionize, you choose to commoditize your profession. That’s a reality I’ve discovered after speaking with many professionals.

They all speak of how their employer treats them like factory workers. A great example is doctors in the healthcare industry.

An evolving world that requires you to constantly learn

It’s important to point out, everyone’s skills are important.

Every contribution makes a difference to humanity as a whole. Some more than others though.

At the same time, it’s important to realize one skill may be in demand today. Then tomorrow another skill falls in demand. Then so on and so forth.

The ability to constantly challenge yourself to learn is a necessity in today’s world. Not only do you personally benefit, but it helps the world as a whole.

The best learners typically find themselves in places where learning is a requirement. Not to overly generalize, but many unions don’t promote this endless learning environment.

In the end, if you want to earn more money, learn more than your peers. Take on greater challenges.

Elon Musk even stated,

“You get paid in direct proportion to the difficulty of problems you solve.”

The working labor union models

vw beetle factory 1957
VW Beetle Factory in 1957 (Photo Credit: Austrian National Library)

Unions when properly run, simply work. I’ve seen it.

They circumvent the problems of an existing industry.

At the same time, unions better accommodate certain industries like electricians. I speak with many electricians, and the union model works great for them.

Because their work involves following codes and standards, and engineering plans. Their goal is to maintain quality and keep productivity high.

But what if you’re working to create the technologies of tomorrow as an engineer? The rules of a predefined path no longer apply.

In these instances, I find unions more times than not stifle progression. They do this through mismanagement of power.

This is why it’s best if employers provide better management to avoid this entire issue, to begin with.

Engineers do unionize in Germany and it works

In certain cultures, engineers unionize, and it works great. For example, in Germany.

The difference is, these unions are part of the company. Like the BMW and Audi unions.

These companies have union reps on their administrative boards. So let’s say BMW wants to open up shop in a new country or launch a new product.

BMW will need to ask its shareholders as well as the union.

Also, in this setup, the trade union knows if the company is losing money. Thus, they can make compromises as necessary to help the company.

For example, reducing worker pay for a period of time. This then helps the company in a slow and crippling economy.

This is how in the 2008 Great Recession, few people lost their jobs. At the same time, more German engineering companies stayed afloat.

What’s more, most unions go for long term investments. They prefer investments in R&D, versus share disbursements.

Clearly, the success of the union ties to the success of the company. They both need to work together for everyone to benefit.

Whereas in America, we have trade unions who are independent of the company. This a lot of the time doesn’t work out too well because of the exploitation of power.

Important Note: I speak with many German engineers. The question of, “can engineers unionize?” comes up a lot. 

The union model aside, one important variable is German culture itself. In German labor unions, if you suck at your job, someone will tell you.

You can’t just collect a paycheck and do a half-ass job. 

But in America, I’ve found you need to be very nice to not hurt anyone’s feelings. When things go south, I rarely see bullshit called out directly.

Because that’s viewed as too aggressive and barbaric. I find this to be a huge problem, that goes unsung. 

Lebron James and the NBA’s CBA

dwyane wade and lebron james
Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (Photo Credit: Keith Allison Sports Photos)

Let’s circle back to my Lebron James example. The NBA’s CBA works and protects players.

I know the work of Lebron James isn’t quantifiable. Outside of his court skills, he brings so many intangibles to every team he plays with. Things a scorecard would never show.

For example, leadership, camaraderie, the influx of marketing dollars, added TV viewership, and so much more.

So, like in engineering, we can’t calculate the individual output of NBA players.

That said, the CBA considers the impact of all NBA players. It doesn’t focus on individual player contributions alone.

The short end version is, with a union, you have more power as people come together. When you’re dealing with your employer one on one, you won’t have much leverage.

For example, an average NBA player goes to his owner asking for more money. Because he thinks his salary doesn’t match the value he brings to the team.

The owner then says I have 50 other players I can instantly replace you with.

So you’re instantly put in your place. You then shut up and step back.

But if you go in as a union, you’ll have collective bargaining on your side. This means you can possibly strike. Owners will thus lose out on their superstar players too, who aren’t replaceable.

Given how short NBA careers are, and how prevalent injuries are, this model works in the NBA. You may be the greatest NBA player one day, but a torn ACL could instantly derail your entire career.

This is why players want minimum salaries. Also, they want guaranteed contracts, among other things.

“Can engineers unionize” wrap up

Of course, but many engineers don’t want to unionize.

This is a huge generalization on my part. I know.

As well, culture plays a huge role in the effectiveness of unions as we see in different parts of the world.

Mainly, how individuality meets teamwork, to properly benefit union members.

Overall though, in many instances, we can’t place an economic value on the output of an engineer’s work. There’s no logical way to quantify an output formed through creativity.

Can engineers unionize in a way that benefits all parties? Do you think unionization is beneficial to workers and employers?

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