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.

The Pareto Principle states 80% of results come from 20% of the action taken. In the working world, this means 80% of a company’s output comes from 20% of the workforce.

To better see the impact of the 80/20 rule, let’s first discuss U.S. engineering unionization.

How common is the push for unions in engineering?

I often hear the “U” word thrown around when the following events unfold at an engineering company:

  • Massive layoffs
  • Supposed terrible long-hour working conditions without breaks
  • Management ignoring engineers

Frustrations boil over, and you hear the murmurs of, “I told you so, we need to unionize!”

Engineers like any other type of employee want more rights and power. This is the formula to control your destiny and 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 employers. But, when mismanaged only serving their own interests, they become a nightmare.

Existing unions in engineering

I have some engineer friends in unions, and they love it. They earn a steady income with benefits and have job security.

But, most of my engineer friends aren’t too fond of unions. They find the rules accompanying unions to be cumbersome and frankly bullshit!

For example, a power engineer from time to time needs to inspect a piece of de-energized equipment. If you’re part of a union though, you wouldn’t be able to instantly inspect. You’d 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. And when you finally receive approval, you’ll need to repeat the process if you want to make fixes.

Another concern is how unions can increase the worth of unskilled and unmotivated workers. At the same time, not proportionally raise the value of great workers. The latter group can’t showcase their productivity and be rewarded accordingly. All because a union defines the extent of your job role.

Let’s now answer the question “can engineers unionize?” using the 80/20 rule.

80/20 rule explained in the engineering profession

The 80/20 rule rings true in all areas of life, including engineering.

A great example is found 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 nosedives. With Lebron, the team is 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 the max offered salary.

Similarly in engineering, some engineers can solve insanely complex problems while others can’t. These are the 10x engineers.

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.

Think about how this car assembly line works. Each worker has a certain task they repeatedly do, called the division of labor.

So, Person ‘A’ only focuses on installing the motor, while Person ‘B’ installs the wheels. In this division of labor, Person ‘A’ doesn’t need to learn how to install wheels and vice versa.

When workers focus solely on a single task, their work output becomes optimized. In return, work efficiency skyrockets, and production costs drop.

Standardization of a worker in an assembly line

The work scope of each person in an assembly line is clearly outlined. This standardization allows the work of each person to be appropriately priced.

So, if the car factory swaps Person ‘A’ with Person ‘B,’ they’d expect the same output. As once you learn your work role, there aren’t any unknowns. Thus, the only negotiable work variable becomes human labor. So, what does this all mean?

Any person prior to filling a position on the assembly line will already have a fixed value. Because their economic contribution to a given task is 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.

It’s similar to flipping burgers. You don’t try to negotiate your pay, you get what you’re offered. Because all burger flippers do the exact same work of flipping meat patties.

Are engineers commodities in the workforce?

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

Some are, especially lower-level engineers who do repetitive work.

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 the assembly line. Your employer can pay you a fixed fee.

For the most part though, engineers don’t repeat the same task over and over again. Rather, they analyze, process, research, and solve problems. Each project requires this same level of attention.

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 was impossible. I’ve discussed the engineering process behind the Golden Gate Bridge.

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

So, the economic output of an engineer isn’t predefined. The more capable an engineer is, the better the end product will become.

Similarly, you can’t place a fixed cost on the lead engineers who can safely send us to Mars. Especially, given we’ve never pulled off this feat. No different than a highly talented artist, who has unworldly creative skills. Skills we’ve never seen before.

In short, creativity doesn’t have a fixed price. In the same vein, you can’t attach an economic value to engineering. Because engineering is an inherently creative profession.

This is why great engineers can command their own pay in the open market. And it’s a big reason why many engineers don’t want to unionize.

Engineers leveraging the open market with specialized skills

Since engineers have a unique skill set, they can quickly find a new job when needed. In most trades, you don’t have this luxury. Thus, the union creates a safety net for these workers.

The kicker is though, once you unionize, you choose to commoditize your profession. This is a reality I’ve discovered after speaking with many professionals. They tell me how their employer treats them like a factory worker. A great example is doctors in the healthcare industry.

Today’s world 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, a skill in demand today may fall out of demand tomorrow. So the ability to constantly challenge yourself to learn is a necessity in today’s world. Not only do you personally benefit, but you help humanity.

And the best learners typically find themselves in places where learning is a requirement. Not to overly generalize, but most unions don’t promote an endless learning environment.

In the end, if you want to earn more money, challenge yourself more than your peers. Elon Musk 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)

To flip the coin, unions when properly run, do work for select industries like electricians. I speak with many electricians, and many love their union.

Because their work is straightforward. Their primary goal is to maintain quality and safety while implementing a fixed design.

But if you’re creating the technologies of tomorrow, a predefined path doesn’t exist. Unions in these instances stifle progression. This happens because unions can’t manage work as optimally as an employer.

Engineers do unionize in Germany and it works

In certain cultures like found in Germany, the unionization of engineers works great. The big difference is though, these unions are part of the company. Like the BMW and Audi unions.

These companies have union reps on their administrative boards. Say BMW wants to open up shop in a new country. BMW will need to ask permission from its shareholders and the union.

In this setup, the trade union also knows if the company is losing money. Thus, they can make compromises when necessary to help the company. For example, reduce worker pay in a slow economy.

This is how in the 2008 Great Recession, few people lost their jobs in German engineering companies. Even more, most unions aim for long-term investments. They prefer investments in R&D, versus share disbursements.

Not surprisingly, the success of the union directly ties to the success of the company. They both work hand in hand. Whereas in America, trade unions are independent of the company. As a result, it’s common to find the exploitation of power.

Important Note: a critical variable to the success of German unions is the 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. 

In America though, you need to be very nice to not hurt anyone’s feelings. When things go south, I rarely see bullshit called out directly. Because it’s viewed as too aggressive and barbaric. 

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, and the NBA’s CBA.

I know the work of Lebron isn’t quantifiable. Outside of his court skills, he brings many intangibles to every team he plays for. For example, leadership, camaraderie, the influx of marketing dollars, added TV viewership, and so much more.

Like in engineering, we can’t calculate the individual output of NBA players. All the while, the CBA focuses on both individuals and all players as a whole. With the latter, you gain power in numbers. When you’re dealing with your employer one-on-one though, you lose leverage.

For example, an average NBA player goes to his owner and asks for more money. He thinks his salary doesn’t match the value he brings to the team. The owner says I have 50 other players I can instantly replace you with. So you’re quickly put in your place.

But if you approach the situation when part of a union, you’ll have collective bargaining on your side. You can go on strike. Owners will then lose their superstar players, who aren’t replaceable, in addition to you.

Given the commonality of injuries and how short NBA careers 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 with guaranteed contracts.

“Can engineers unionize?” wrap up

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

Also, culture plays a huge role in the effectiveness of unions as seen in different parts of the world. Mainly, in the U.S., individuality trumps teamwork, which isn’t conducive to a union model.

In the end, though, you can’t place an economic value on the output of an engineer’s work. There’s no pragmatic way to quantify an output formed through creativity.

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


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