MARCUS: Elves to vote on unionization at the North Pole

Morton Marcus
December 11, 2010
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Morton Marcus

Normally, I do not report my conversations with Elvin Elfenhousen until we are closer to X-eve, as they call it at the North Pole. But this year is different. This year, Santa is having problems and the frustrated elves are prepared to vote on recognition of the Union of Wish Fulfillment Workers.

One might think from the movies that Santa is immune from labor problems and not subject to the discipline of the Great Recession. That is not true.

Recessions bring stress. Households afflicted with stress are not as generous with good deeds and kind words. It is the collection of these deeds and words that occupies Santa’s elves during much of the year. Then, as the eve approaches, the elves trade the good deeds and kind words for the things they require to create Santa’s famous array of gifts.

Hard times make for hard work. The elves feel that Santa has not given them sufficient credit for the work they have done these past few years, when goodness and kindness were hard to find. Santa, they charge, does not appreciate how hard it is to negotiate with feigned goodness and insincere kindness for lumber and electronics.

For his part, Santa denies these claims. The elves, he says, “became accustomed to easy times and forgot that there is hard work to be done meeting the wishes of millions. They’ve gotten soft in good times and lost the edge necessary to work hard. The union will only engender and endorse an atmosphere of sloth. The camaraderie of the workshop will be replaced with unjustifiable tension.”

The UWFW wants to bargain for more rest periods for elves. The union seeks better training for elves so the demands of the job do not cause such high levels of stress. Therapeutic benefits are also sought, including Caribbean cruises for those suffering from PXS (Post X-eve Syndrome).

Not all the elves seek union representation. Although they may share elements of dissatisfaction with the pro-union group, these dissenters have hesitations about joining a union so forcefully opposed by Santa.

Thus, at the North Pole, questions about right-to-work rules have arisen. Must a dissenting elf, who chooses not to join the UWFW, pay union dues and be subject to the union contract? Will Santa’s Workshop be open to all or closed to those who reject union membership?

“What do you think?” Elvin asked me.

“I don’t know enough about it to have a valid opinion,” I said.

“But you have an opinion on everything,” Elvin objected.

“But not a valid one,” I responded.

“You mean you fake it,” he said. “You don’t want to appear either uninformed or just plain stupid.”

“That’s how it is,” I said in my best Walter Cronkite voice. “Honesty most often involves ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty. People don’t want to hear what needs to be said. They want the short ‘elevator speech,’ a snappy summation measured in seconds for a topic that requires weeks to understand.”

“And about the UWFW?” he asked again.

“Go for it,” I advised, “but don’t let the union get entrenched the way management gets entrenched. Make sure that, every few years, there is a recertification election in which the union has to win approval from the elves and does not continue in perpetuity. I’d like to see term limits or open, fair elections for union and corporate leadership so that ‘experience’ does not become a synonym for ‘complacency.’”

“You mean … ?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “Santa needs to stand for re-election just like anyone else who claims to be acting in the public interest.”•


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.


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