Thursday, October 06, 2005
Beating The Union Stigma
"For years I worked in production as a loyal union member. There are no local jobs so I am trying to change to service work. When an employer sees that I worked for (Employer name deleted) for 15 years, they seem to tune me out. I can't lie about my work history so what should I do?"
You are encountering what is too common a situation, I'm afraid, M.L. Try to sit in the interviewer's chair for a moment and think of some assumptions you might make. Long-term union workers are often considered demanding, rigid, and entitled. In a large union shop, there are very defined work rules which an employer flouts at his peril. This was designed, of course, to protect employees: to avoid exploitation, to guarantee overtime pay, to ensure that older, higher-paid, workers are not discarded to make way for cheaper, entry-level youngsters. The system of shop stewards and grievance hearings allows for all employees to be fully heard and enjoy representation by their peers.
The fear of non-union employers is that your history will make it difficult for you to be flexible and cooperate with supervision and management rather than the union "Us versus Them" environment.
My motto is always to identify negative ideas the interviewer may be harboring and confront them directly. Tell the interviewer that you know that sometimes former union workers cause headaches for new employers. Now distance yourself from the stereotype. You performed union work because it was well-paid and readily available. But your key goal was to work, to be productive, to feel good about yourself, to provide for your family. Point out how worthless you feel when you are not productive. Stress your flexibility -- that you are open to what hours you will work, that you enjoy being part of a team, that you like to work closely with supervisors and management so that together you can achieve departmental and company goals.
Focus on your liking to work with people and your choice to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, whether they be customers, coworkers, or someone calling with a complaint. If there have been times in the past when you have been able to mediate between opposing parties, or times when you could have filed a grievance but elected not to because it was less important than doing your job, cite it now. Turn the interviewer's biases upside down and you will at least get a fair hearing and honest consideration.