Unions are in the news these days with a frontal assault coming from newly elected governors who have promised to drastically trim the costs of government and remove the noose that has been placed around it by unions that can and do bring public services to a stop. In Wisconsin, public employees have taken over the capital as the call for general strikes by public workers go out.
As I watch the public employees labor dispute unfold in Wisconsin and pending in other states facing deep cuts, I ponder this question: What conditions in the pest control industry would result in the creation of a pest control workers union?
The union strike is a forceful and cruel weapon, shutting down public institutions required for the general welfare, such as hospitals and schools, and major industries that are critical elements in our economy. The ramifications of strikes are so strong as to leave lasting and indelible marks on all sides for those who have been through the trauma. It is a medicine sometimes worse than the problem. The strike should be a last resort for those who collectively believe that the work is impossible, physically or mentally, and for whom there do not appear to be other options open.
Americans are notorious for having short memories. Unless you are from a family with deep union roots, you probably were never told, certainly not in a passionate way, how critical unions were to the creation of fair wages and more importantly, safe work conditions. Unions also were responsible for the placement of firm legal boundaries on child labor. It took unions to define what a normal work week should be. Before that, it was not uncommon for workers, regardless of age, to toil 12 hours a day in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
I present these pictures and this blog on child labor as a reminder that an estimated 215 million children are in exploited labor situations. (I’m surprised the figure isn’t higher).
If you have the impression that unions are only for factory workers, think about these examples: The NYC Taxi Driver’s union, made up of field drivers who rarely see the office, not unlike pest control technicians, has been very active fighting many battles for the working taxi driver. Did you know that being a cab driver is one of the most dangerous professions in NYC? Perhaps people have forgotten about the United Farm Workers union.
The fight for worker rights was waged unceasingly, with the strong hand of powerful unions, sometimes backed by physical force to counteract and overwhelm management that for too long had been comfortable using physical force to enforce inhumane work conditions. Nowadays, these physical disturbances are rare in the U.S. Instead, the use of union strikes have largely been supplanted with back door payoffs that can counteract the deep corporate pockets. Bribery of politicians by “special interests” is still common. We may call it campaign contributions, but it is still bribery. On the positve side, many potential strikes are now solved peacefully with labor arbitration.
The powerful relationship of public unions to urban politicians is one of the major talking points in the current battle against public unions. While unions had glorious beginnings, nowadays, the majority of Americans ponder the questions: Do we really need unions? Have they overstepped? Ronald Reagan thought so when he destroyed the air traffic controllers union with military intervention. Reagan stopped the union which did have very fair and valid concerns related to both work conditions and public safety from destroying the airline industry and air commerce. In other countries around the world, unions have played a major role in disabling public life, endangering the public health and destroying their economies with hyper-inflation partially created by the union demand for wages indexed to inflation.
When I first got involved in the pest control industry in 2002, I thought to myself that the conduct of many companies begs the creation of unionized pest control workers. There are many in the industry with more knowledge of its’ history than I, but as far as I know, it has never been tried. I for one, would not want to see it happen. I am simply laying out the points that cause the creation of unions and what has been done to avoid it.
I discovered very early that pest control workers were pouring heaping doses of complaints against pest control companies and management. Complaints were often about hourly compensation. In the pest control industry, many companies pay by production or commission based systems that can be easily manipulated such that non-revenue producing components of the job are not compensated, even though the workers are “under the control” of the company, which is a standard test of labor that must be compensated. Many lawsuits have been successfully won by pest control workers in class-actions specifically on this point. Other complaints range greatly, from the lack of upward mobility, poor benefits, and unethical customer practices. Examples include using applicators as field representatives to reduce sales commission and the redefinition of field sales as office sales to do the same. Another example I have heard, but not in recent years, were managers who required pest control workers to use water instead of chemical at the end of the month to keep the chemical budget in line. What could be more demeaning to a service provider? These are some of the worst practices in the industry.
Regulaton of pesticide use and with it, the regulation of working conditions in the pest control industry has been a major factor in elliminating the need for unionized pest control. What pest control workers have not been able to win for themselves has been done through public regulation and enforcement. Those labor battles beyond the scope of regulation have been won my labor attorneys in class-action lawsuits. As much as our industry may at times complain about excessive regulation and frivilous lawsuits, the two arms of regulation and legal action have surpressed the need for a pest control union.
There are many companies that have strong standing with their workers for ethical practices. There is strong leadership in the industry promoting higher standards for both workers and managers. BMPs (Best Management Practices) are being created and revised constantly to protect the public, workers and management. Our leading industry magazines, with heavy input from our leadership, constantly remind companies to treat workers well, if for no other reason than enlightened self-interest. Happy workers will be good and highly productive employees. Just this past month, the National Pest Management Association came out with its PestWorld cover and supporting artices on the subject of cultivating talent -hiring and retaining talent.
In summary, I think the mood in the pest control industry is improving for line workers and managers. They both understand that there are not huge profits being made in the industry. They love the work and understand that it is not an easy profession. More and more, you can see everyone working together for a better future. Companies that can’t see their way to that future will be abandoned, while those that embrace the win-win-win mentality of pursuing what is better for workers, the company and the community will win the day without the need for unionized pest control.