In the desperate tug-of-war between unions and employers, exemplified currently by the battle over passage of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), will employees emerge as winners or as collateral damage? A brief background will shed some light on why the latter seems more likely at this point.

By giving most employees the right to form and join unions of their choosing, Congress' intention was to level the playing field - i.e., to establish a balance of power between employers and workers. The legislators' purpose clearly was to protect employees from abusive practices and provide a process through which their interests would be considered seriously. Fifty years later, that balance has yet to be achieved. Instead, the initial legislation and subsequent amendments have tilted the scales back and forth between management and unions. As proposed, the EFCA and related actions that have the force of law (e.g., Executive Orders, National Labor Relations Board rulings) are poised to favor unions to such an extent that the elusive balance may never be achieved.

At what point did employees become spectators on the field instead of players? When Congress legalized unions as the third player in the labor-management process and believed they would be workers' protectors. Although most people assume that the terms "employees," "union," and "labor" are synonymous, they are not. While unions have a fiduciary duty to represent employees, the fact is that they have their own agenda - as does management. For both management and unions, the first order of business is survival. The fact that survival is a priority raises the possibility of occasional conflicts of interest when dealing with employees. For example, owners of new businesses may have every intention of paying workers well, capping the work week at 40 hours, and providing good benefits. Yet in the frequently cash-strapped, frenetic early months and years, organizational survival takes precedence over those intentions. Often employees are willing participants, choosing to believe that hard work now will pay off handsomely in the future.

In short, management's and unions' respective struggles to survive and prosper often leave employees out in the cold. The fact that the labor-management relationship tends to be viewed as a zero-sum game results in the two sides squaring off as adversaries instead of collaborating as partners. Rather than focusing on how to treat employees fairly, the emphasis often is on the power struggle between union and management, with each party portraying the other as the "bad guy" with its own interests at heart.

What can be done to mitigate the damage to employees by a system that seems to be failing them in its intended role of protector? Workers need accurate, complete information in order to make informed choices about whether or not to seek third party intervention in the workplace. For example, they need realistic assessments of what both management and union can and cannot do, and what each is or is not willing to do for them. They also need and deserve a labor-management process that makes employees a priority. Without such information, and absent a more employee-centered Congress and administration, workers are likely to become collateral damage. Absent these two key changes, when all is said and done there will be union and management "winners" and "losers;" employees will be merely an afterthought.

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.