Oligarch Bodyguards Should Unionize – And Civil Society Groups Should Help

Credit: tristat.com
Credit: tristat.com

A story about bodyguards being overworked for little pay by News.am aroused a simple solution in my mind: the bodyguards of oligarchs should unionize.

What’s more, they should be supported by civil society groups that want to improve the working conditions of workers in the country. This may sound facetious. Bodyguards, after all, are working for the same people some of these groups are trying to rein in (then again, so are thousands of others, but a factory worker isn’t as ominous as an oligarch’s bodyguard). But, I’m dead serious. Let me explain.

In order for unionization to be successful, the potential union workers have to wield some leverage over their employers. That is, if the workers quit en masse, it would cause great economic harm to the employer or would threaten something they hold dear. In the case of the oligarchs, I’m going to assume something they hold dear is their lives because, well, they have bodyguards, presumably to protect their bodies (from harm, that is).

So, the logic might go that the bodyguards have some leverage over the employer in convincing them that they’re worth keeping around. And it’s not like the bodyguards are working at the Wal-Mart of personal security services and can be replaced with part-time high school teenie boppers. These oligarchs have to trust these men with their lives, which is not something that happens during a weekend orientation on how to be a good bodyguard. Meaning they can’t just fire the ones they have. That would be like some idiot firing a bunch of trained killing machines and expecting there to be no negative backlash.

This is to say nothing of how befitting their huskiness and willingness to use strong-arm tactics are for union membership.

With these ideal circumstances for unionization in mind, civil society groups should look seriously at helping the bodyguards for a few reasons. First, unionizing the bodyguards has a higher likelihood for success than workers who are much more replaceable. Their skills (and body types) are less teachable than a cashier at a fast-food restaurant so they hold a higher value for their employers and thus have more leverage in any potential negotiations. In effect, unionizing bodyguards is low-hanging fruit compared with others who have less skills or who might be more scared of their employers.

They have "union" written all over them. (Credit: news.am)
They have “union” written all over them. (Credit: news.am)

Second, securing a victory in unionizing any group sends a clear message that employers need to take their employees’ welfare more seriously if they hope their enterprise to be sustainable. If unionizing the bodyguards achieves that goal, it’s well worth it. It also helps the civil society groups dangle the possibility of unionization when an employer doesn’t want to budge on improving working conditions.

Finally, the victory would have the greatest impact on employees throughout other industries who will realize their worth in the jobs they are doing. And, if they happen to not be getting the pay they think they deserve, they can see unionization as an option, facilitating the work of civil society groups trying to help employees. That’s because employees in these other industries will have realized that they can, indeed, help themselves, and can look to the civil society groups for direction.

Of course, this does not mean that the oligarchs are going to welcome the idea with open arms. Actually, in all likelihood, they won’t take very kindly to the bodyguards in their employ being so ungrateful for being allowed to work 24 hours a day for scraps as opposed to the 0 hours a day they would be working without them. It is still unclear what gives employers almost everywhere delusions that they are Jesus and Robin Hood combined but it’s a reality employees everywhere have to address.

To be sure, unionization is not always a peaceful endeavor and has often led to crazy violence. But I guess when you never see your family, barely have enough money for food or rent, and are treated like an indentured servant, the prospect of violence is less scary than if you’re working for Google.

And, look, when I say they’re going to realize it’s unsustainable, I mean it. Whether it happens through unionization or emigration or whatever, employers have to learn that not paying your workers is bad for business. So far, it’s been easier to skip scrutiny because the argument has been that at least they are providing jobs when there haven’t been many to go around. That only works for so long.

People eventually realize the difference between good and bad, mutual benefit and exploitation. Unionization happens to be an organized way of ensuring that the trend is toward mutual benefit and not exploitation.

That said, unions are not the solution to everything. I have an ambivalent relationship with them because I believe they can be of great use in situations where workers are being exploited. They can also become cesspools of corruption like any powerful group.

That should, however, not be a deterrent. Any good idea can be soiled with bad intentions but with the right people and the right foundations, it can also be a great boon to society.

Solutions to problems often come from unlikely places. This may be an example of one such unlikely source for progress that can have resounding effects throughout the workforce of Armenia. 

And, political parties, I know it’s not election season (so, yawn, right?), but maybe something to work on.

Well paid employees are good for their employers and good for Armenia.

By: William Bairamian

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