“If you’re prone to magical thinking, you might believe all it takes to combat bullying (mistreatment by the employer or its agent, managers) is the collective effort by concerned coworkers who witness the events. Yes, in your dreams you see the heroic target in the boss’s threshold backed by throngs of agitated and supportive peers,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). “In reality, chances are better that only a breeze will be behind our hero at the door when left to fight alone.” Coworkers don’t intervene, according to the 2008 WBI Coworker Study. They fear they’ll be the next target, be the only supporter, ruin the fight, or be pushed away by the target.
Without the masses of disgusted coworkers behind a target, who’s left to help balance the power with employers? Unions. In a 2011 poll, the WBI asked workplace bullying targets what role, if any, they saw for unions in addressing workplace bullying.
Nearly three-quarters of targets polled believe unions have a positive role to play, and almost a quarter of those polled want to have the option to join a union.
But 24 percent of bullied targets do not trust their unions any more than their employers. Based on their years of working with targets, WBI guesses the distrust is from people who’ve likely asked their unions for help with bullying situations and been rebuffed. “Their unions did no more for them than HR. It is based on real experiences,” says WBI.
How unions could not play a central role in stopping workplace bullying
WBI offers four explanations as to why a union might not fight against workplace bullying:
- Unions officers like where they are. Union officers rise in the ranks based on their ability to fight win on behalf of union members. They don’t want interference from a new company policy or a future law.
- Unions are bureaucratic. In a union with a low service threshold, there’s less compassion and therefore less help for union members.
- Unions talk “partnership” with employers. Some unions want to get along with employers but ignore their members’ needs. This idea doesn’t necessarily point to corruption. “Unions have been forced into concessions by scheming, cash-rich employers for years. Employers threaten to shutter the business and move it offshore if pensions aren’t abandoned or health insurance co-pays aren’t increased. In other words, unions have been whipped into submission. Survival is the operating mode. Concern over quality of work life issues seems unimportant,” says WBI.
- Cases sometimes involve two union members. “Unions can be great when the bully is a non-member, typically a manager. But when bullying is member-on-member, most unions are paralyzed. They erroneously feel compelled to defend both the abusive and abused member. In reality, the responsibility is to represent, never to defend,” explains WBI.
None of these reasons excuse ineffective unions. They simply serve to explain the realities of modern unions and in some cases, what unions need to confront to regain their members’ trust.