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By William F. Brabenec

JURISDICTION ISN'T A piece of something, like a brick or a length of wood. It's a symbolic structure that shelters people who must work every day for a living.

The idea of jurisdiction arose many, many centuries ago. It's sort of an instinctive human impulse that makes life more stable and the working environment more humane.

Craft guilds in sixteenth century England and Europe believed strongly in the concept because apprenticeships back then lasted six to ten years, and both the business owner and the worker wanted to make sure he would do only the work he spent years learning to do.

Even though the boundaries of a worker's duties expanded and contracted, jurisdiction spelled out just who did what, and made life more predicable for everyone. A skilled craftsman, having served a long apprenticeship, would not have to clean the owner's outhouse.

For hundreds of years shop owners recognized that negotiated jurisdictions addressed many of the owners' problems, too. Conflicts stemming from ambitious bosses, favorite sons, greedy competition and aggressive unions, were either prevented or resolved by the concept of jurisdiction. It has always worked well, and still does today.

What does jurisdiction "do" for today's worker? Just about everything! The concept creates a symbolic "circle" around the job area and then says two things: First, everyone inside that circle can't be forced to do a different kind of work outside of the circle. Second, it says the kind of work produced inside the circle can't be performed by someone outside the circle.

How does an employee get inside this kind of circle? Simply by being a member in good standing of the union that has jurisdiction over that kind of work. Under a contract, that is the only way. No one else can "further the production process". Owning shares of stock, being a supervisor or having been born on Mars doesn't qualify anyone to do the actual work.

Over the years bits and pieces of a union's jurisdiction might have been the subject of negotiation. Sometimes a union will negotiate an option for an individual to work outside the bargaining unit. That option could be voluntary. It could mean the individual union member could choose to work outside the circle of jurisdiction, and return to the circle whenever he chose. The circle, or shelter of jurisdiction remained intact.

All of these negotiated changes in Jurisdiction affected "a brick here and a length of wood there," but no attempt has ever been made to dismantle the entire structure. To tear down this simple shelter would leave the worker vulnerable to the most primitive elements of human nature.

A worker without jurisdiction would have no control over his off days, starting times, shift, vacation, holidays, day-to-day duties or any other aspect of his job. The whim of his supervisor would make those decisions, which leads to unethical nepotism. Without jurisdiction, we would have to trust the company not to make us clean the boss' outhouse!

The concept of jurisdiction has been around for many centuries simply because it's a civilized way of doing business.

William F. Brabenec

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