They create a work environment where gaming the system is the way you get ahead rather than being a more productive worker.
How long have you been detached from a work force to not realize that's pretty much the same in a nonunion setting as well?
Well, first off, "gaming the system" in this case involves toadying up to the union rather than working hard for the employer. The union often has more influence on whether you get a promotion or are shifted laterally to a better and higher paying position. That's where the breads buttered, so that's who you aim to please. This creates a situation where the highest paid employees are often not the most productive or capable at their jobs, but are the most loyal to the union itself. This sort of thing can happen in a non-union workplace, but in that case the guy you're toadying up to and the guy whose livelihood is based on company profits are one and the same person, it's less likely to be done on a large scale and far less likely to be tolerated to the point of negatively impacting the bottom line. The adversarial condition that often exists between the union and the employer absolutely increases the odds of advancement being for non-productive reasons (and even absolutely counterproductive ones).
Even if we extend gaming to just include working the "rules" of the workplace to benefit you, there's a huge difference. The combination of union job protection and collective pay scales significantly reduces the incentive for each individual worker to be more productive and actually creates an incentive for each worker to be as unproductive as possible. I'm not saying that this is the case in every union workplace, but in sites where this can be a problem, it's going to be so more often and to a greater degree if the workforce is unionized than if it is not. In workplaces where work is contract or project driven, and wages are hourly, there's a huge incentive to work as slowly as possible so as to maximize the authorization of overtime when deadlines begin to loom. This become self enforced among the workers. If you work faster and harder to try to meet that deadline ahead of schedule, you're effectively taking money out of the pockets of your co-workers. That tends to not go over so well. While this can occur in a non-union workplace, it's less likely to be tolerated. Workers can more easily be fired if the employer suspects they're sandbagging, and workers pay is based on their individual performance, so there's a counter incentive for each individual to work harder. Basically, in a non-union workplace, the workers compete for higher pay by trying to stand out as the best worker, thus increasing productivity. In a union workplace, they all get the same raise whether they work harder or not. So very little incentive to work harder versus a strong incentive not to.
Those are just the most basic problems that unionization brings. Collective pay is really a terrible way to run any kind of business. It stifles individual effort. It reduces overall productivity (in most fields), and it creates opposition to changes in the workplace, which cause worker skills to atrophy relative to their non-union counterparts. Union membership often becomes a trap for the workers, where they realize that they can't compete in an open labor market, so the only way they can continue to earn a salary similar to what they're making is to support the union. The farther they get into this state, the stronger their need to do this. Which I suspect is precisely why the whole system is built that way. Unions are about power and control for the union. The workers are used to accomplish that. The romantic ideal of the union protecting the workers from evil bosses and unfair wages and working conditions is so far removed from the real world that it's laughable. In many ways the unions have become exactly that which they were originally formed to prevent. They took the power to oppress and unfairly control the workers from the employers and took it on themselves. And of course they use that power for their own ends. Edited, Dec 13th 2012 1:25pm by gbaji