Is It Time for Unions to Sober Up?

Beer - union
Beer - union

In this economy, many Americans feel grateful to have jobs in the first place. Our high unemployment rate makes recent video of some of Chrysler's unionized workers drinking and smoking pot to make it through their workdays all the more galling.

The individuals caught on camera were allegedly getting loaded before work and on their lunch breaks. Their actions could get these employees fired; in a similar recent situation, the offending workers did get the boot.

However, the openness with which the workers flouted the rules -- they were caught in the parking lots of their United Auto Workers union hall in Trenton, N.J. -- suggests that they weren't too worried about losing their jobs. If unions allow slacker employees to feel shielded from the consequences of their misbehavior, have they become bad for companies, and for the overall economy?

Getting Drunk with Power

Historically, unions fulfilled a legitimate need. In more dog-eat-dog days, somebody needed to stand up for workers against the far more powerful forces of capital. Unions forced corporate managers to stop ignoring workers' financial and physical health and safety in their pursuit of profit.

Unions remain excellent watchdogs today. They catalog and criticize the vast discrepancies between many top executives' multimillion-dollar paychecks and pitiable performance.

But at the same time, unions like the UAW have become extremely politically powerful in their own right. Occasionally, that power works against the rest of us.

Setting the Stage for Mediocre Businesses

Not long ago, the American auto sector -- with the exception of Ford (F) -- received government bailouts. This suffering industry couldn't compete adequately on its own.

Although high-paid management teams were certainly part of the problem, so were union demands that defied the industry's economic realities. Our financially strapped government ponied up public money to throw these companies a lifeline in 2009, and even though the UAW admittedly made major concessions as part of the deal, doing so was the only option left, given the market-based alternative: failure.

It's simply not fair that some individuals (like the aforementioned substance-abusing video stars) who feel immune from firing are making life more difficult for their harder-working peers. In this particular case, the employees' disregard for the rules doesn't just affect their fellow employees. Automobiles are heavy machinery, and I'm pretty sure none of us wants to buy a car put together by somebody who got liquored up at lunchtime.

Happy hour and rush hour do not go together.

Weed Out the Slackers

Unions need to adjust their stance on worker rights to acknowledge cold, hard economic realities. Employees who flout any reasonable idea of "merit" don't deserve protections or high paychecks. Sometimes, they don't even deserve their jobs.

Powerful unions like the UAW need to put aside their traditional reasoning and realize that America needs better incentives for merit, rather than rewards just for showing up, sober or not. Weeding out the slackers creates an incentive for workers to do better, not worse.

Unless the global competitive landscape involves drinking contests and bong hits, it's high time that unions stopped protecting the slacking class alongside the working class.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns no shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford.