This post was originally published on August 5, 2011
There is a fight going on in a northern part of my State, which I recently read about in our local newspaper. It involves employees who have been locked out of work because they rejected a union contract that was presented to them.
The union and its members complained that there were several changes to the new contract that made them uncomfortable, from a change in health benefit plans and increased out-of-pocket costs, to the potential for the employer to hire additional temporary, non-union employees to cover increased work, when the demand required.
The employer indicated that the health insurance plan they proposed in the contract was the same currently used for non-union employees, and that bringing in additional employees if/when the need arose was a business necessity in order to maintain operations under varying market demands. The contract also included annual increases and a sign-on bonus with the ratification of the contract (which didn't happen, resulting in the lock-out).
What I found interesting about this dispute wasn't so much the dispute itself, but, rather, the overwhelming reaction by the readers of the article. Some details of the offer were published in the article, which sparked a firestorm of comments, reaching upwards of 350 within a little over a day!
Reading through the comments, I was surprised by the level of anger directed at the union members for rejecting the contract offer. Words like "disillusioned", "whiners" and "join the real world" were frequently used, with only a few dissenters offering support for the employees.
Why Was There So Much Animosity Towards These Employees?
The way I see it, the employees were sitting in a good place heading into contract negotiations, with good benefits and good pay, which they probably hoped to maintain in the new contract. When the employer suggested an 11% increase in benefit costs with their new plan (which is 17% of the total health care costs to the company), the union membership resisted, as most of us likely would under the same or similar situation. Why, with this new contract, should they have to pay such a large increase in costs, when the employer has been able to manage under the old plan just fine?
For employees who have worked for this employer for many years, it might have seemed like a slap in the face to see these changes. They liked the way things have been, so why should they agree to such drastic changes, especially during profitable times for the company?
For people living and/or working outside of this company; however, they see a very different picture. They see and/or have experienced job loss and high unemployment, frozen or decreased wages, a near doubling of out-of-pocket health care costs over the past decade, and some may have even been required to shift to private insurance plans because their employers have stopped providing health insurance benefits altogether.
I suspect that those who have directly endured these changes are the ones who are the angriest at this union and its members, because they have rejected what seems to the outside world to be a reasonable and fair contract for the times.
The first sign of living in a bubble is a tendency to resist changes to the status quo.
Have the Locked Out Employees Been Living in a Bubble?
People who live in a place of satisfaction may not recognize that they are living in a bubble, but it could be very apparent to others, as exemplified in the example above. The first sign of living in a bubble is a tendency to resist changes to the status quo. This could show up in a couple of ways:
Unwillingness to, and/or inability to, positively receive new ideas or improvements to the current state
"That's the way we've always done it" or "If it's not broken, don't fix it"
Inability to see the bigger picture
An 11% increase to a 17% share of health care expenses is too much to pay when it was only 6% before versus Employee's pay on average 40% of total employer health insurance costs, an all time high in 2011.
People living in a bubble and who are content with the status quo, often find fear in change.
People living in a bubble, content with the status quo, often find fear in change. In the example above, besides the increased cost of health care, employees are fearful of losing their jobs to outsourcing. Even though there appears to be wording in the proposed contract that limits the employers ability to outsource existing union jobs, employees are skeptical, which I read as a fear of losing the type of protections they have enjoyed through their union membership, and a lack of trust in how this change will benefit them. While these may be very real fears, they may also be indicators of fear of change; a refusal to recognize and adapt to the shifts that have recently occurred in our society.
We don't know what concessions the union gave in their negotiations of this contract; however, based on employee comments in the article, and the contract details that were disclosed, it appears as though the union and its members are in the midst of a wake-up call to the changing conditions in the employment landscape or, in other words, their bubble is bursting. This is further evidenced by the employer's decision to lockout employees upon their rejection of the contract. Clearly the employer wants to make a point that they believe their offer is reasonable, and their continued unwillingness to return to the bargaining table, despite requests by the union to do so, further exemplifies the employer's unwillingness to compromise; a clear and difficult wake-up call to the union and its membership.
The Bubble Bursts
Once the bubble bursts, there will likely be an adjustment period, which could include a period of grieving (denial, which we're already seeing to some extent, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as people in this situation adapt to their new reality. There will likely be a great deal of fear, and distress by some, when facing this new world, as they begin their adjustment period. The thicker the walls of the bubble, the more difficult the adjustment will be. Ingrained beliefs and values are difficult to change, and for some, this will mean longer adaptation periods. For people in this group, it may take a series of difficult situations such as loss of work, no comparable work/pay/benefits, the end of unemployment insurance (for MN employees) before these individuals are ready to make adjustments.
Minimizing the Impact
We've all encountered situations that have forced unwanted changes. They are seldom enjoyable experiences. The impact of these types of situations can be minimized, however, by two simple approaches:
Flexibility - Taking precautions to prevent ourselves from getting too set in our ways, or too content with the status quo. Regularly changing routine tasks, trying one or two new things a week, seeking a new adventure, whether at work or in our personal lives, will help to keep us flexible and more adaptable when change comes a knocking.
Openness - While our natural tendency when in a place of satisfaction might be to protect it, when approached with a new idea, a concern, a proposed change, try to take note of your reaction. If your initial response is to say "no" to such information, try to reframe your response to one of open curiosity. Ask questions, and truly listen to what is being proposed, rather than closing the door before collecting all pertinent information. Ask yourself (and the proposer, if possible), why such a change would be beneficial or is necessary. Be prepared for difficult conversations about the changing state of your environment. While you might not want to hear them, it's a lot easier to adapt to such changes gradually, by receiving information with an open mind, then to have to go through much more difficult adjustments later due to the bursting of your bubble.
There are a few things that we observers can do to lend a helping hand to those going though difficult transitions:
Listen without judgment.
Empathize by trying to see the situation from their perspective.
Share with open, honest, feedback, and examples from your own experiences, especially with how you adapted, and/or any tips in retrospect that might be helpful.
Remember though, that such feedback and sharing should only be done when a person is receptive to it. Always make sure to ask permission before taking this approach, as unsolicited feedback, or a focus on you and your experiences when what the person needs is a good listener, could unintentionally push the person into a deeper level of distress and despair.
There are a lot of bubbles floating around in our world. What bubbles have you experienced and/or observed in your life and/or society at large? Please share by posting a reply in the comment section below.