ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - November 2001


Issue Highlight — Actions That Might Matter
In Actions That Might Matter, Peter Block challenges us to rethink our well-intended and often automatic urge during difficult times to just "Do Something!" Think instead, he asks, about authentic change, shifting consciousness, relationships, and reconciliation.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along
Improving Performance and Morale Through Union and Management Cooperation

Batman and the Joker. Superman and Lex Luthor. Unions and Management. What makes these relationships different? Well, unlike most adversarial relationships, the latter has no good or evil party. Occasionally one will slip into a devious role, depending on which side of the table you are on, but each party represents their constituents to the best of their ability. In doing that, they go for all they can. Is that a good practice? That question can be confusing.

  In this day and age, cooperation in the workplace is gaining recognition—much more than in previous decades. However, it is not spreading through the corporate world with as much speed as it should. Some labor relations professionals are trying to change that by making themselves into an example. They are changing the face of union/management relations, and in turn, making the lives better for both groups.

  With the economy continuing to evolve into a global entity, corporations are jumping at change. How does business become faster, leaner, cheaper—namely better? As paradigms and buzzwords crowd business section shelves at bookstores around the world, gurus have begun to think about the future. As they’ve put thoughts onto paper, managers and executives alike have tried to put them into action—some successfully, some not. Well, is that the final answer? Is an open-door policy with employees going to fix anything? Is a flatter corporate structure solving any major problems? Are employees genuinely happier than in years past? Perhaps not. What we’ve realized is that we shouldn’t ask if we could work harder and cheaper. The key question is, how do we work smarter and more productively?

  One sector of the business environment attempting to answer that question is labor relations. For decades, it had been normal practice for union and management to be at each other’s throats. It was accepted as the best of what was around. That is no longer true. As the need for quality and productivity explode in importance and vitality, these two adversarial bodies are partnering for change—positive change. And what an alternative it has been. Exploring and embodying the tactics, unions and management are now realizing the value of cooperation.

A “How To” Guide
“One of the reasons it is so difficult to create a cooperative workplace is because we have so little cooperative experience to draw on,” states Stephen E. Barton, Ph.D., AICP, president of the city of Berkeley Chapter, SEIU Local 535, and senior planner in the Berkeley Planning and Development Department. He is right. That is why one has to take a new view on the subject in order to see a new perspective. In its most fundamental state, the bond between the union representing employees and the management representing the company is a relationship. Although not at all the same as a relationship among family, friends, or spouses, it is based upon the same simple rules. The most basic rule in any union/management cooperation philosophy is respect. Would you maliciously lie to your husband or wife? Would you try to trick your children or parents out of money in order to keep it for yourself? Would you use power over your friends to make their lives difficult? I have to hope that the answer to most, if not all, of these questions is a firm “NO!” Fortunately, Ford Motor Company felt the same way. At their assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., Ford decided to add an integrative stamping department. When they approached the UAW Local 900 about what to do with existing agreements and additional labor, the two decided to work together. Since the addition to an already existing plant was something a bit new, their joint work agreement was a perfect choice. Ford was going to have to make some decisions on work design, classification and such. They needed the assistance of the union to ensure the understanding of their motives by their employees. They knew they couldn’t do it alone. The respect they had for the union was sure to pay dividends—they both would gain from the success—and ultimately did. A team environment was created by the new stamping area—not just with union and management, but in the production facility as well. The union leadership involved the membership in all aspects of the process and made substantial efforts to communicate and garner support. With all groups on the same page, the rollout succeeded. Cooperation was the key.

  Another key component in fostering a quality relationship between unions and management is specificity. As in any other relationship, vague language can hurt. More so, holding back feelings can rupture any trust that has been built. If specific goals are set, their achievement is much easier. We’ve been told that since elementary school. However, it is terribly difficult to do alone. Try to look at the union/management relationship as a friendship. That is a good way to cover specificity. There are no ulterior motives with friends—no hidden agendas. When friends’ ideas aren’t parallel, they meet in the middle. Compromise and specificity are related. Although compromise is a key component to negotiations, it is often the end to a bitter battle. Why not start with compromise? “Genuine partnership is only possible if it is based on empowerment,” Barton says. In order to be democratic, everybody has to be equal at the table—in knowledge and in attitude. “Now, I have seen three annual budgets that talk about ‘flattening the hierarchy,’ ‘teamwork,’ and ‘investing in employees,’” Barton adds, “and these phrases ring as hollow as the annual promises to consult with line staff before reorganizing.” You cannot create trust without truth. Truth comes from laying out specific goals. Both sides have to do this and effectively compromise for the best of their respective constituencies.

  Even though respect and specificity are very important to the success of any union/management partnership, leadership can make or break any advances. Talk is cheap. Action gets things done. The strong men and women who call the shots in the bargaining parties have the power to accept or reject change. By opening the avenues of communication, they can find mutual respect. They are on the same page already—which they may not understand. They are trying to get the best they can get. It is not a power trip. It is not malicious intent to hurt. It is business. But who says business cannot be nice? The leaders can make it so. Yes, much easier said than done, but is it? As Jack Welch, noted former CEO of General Electric once said, “The world of the 1990s and beyond will not belong to ‘managers’ or those who can make the numbers dance. The world will belong to passionate, driven leaders—people who not only have enormous amounts of energy but who can energize those whom they lead.” It is the 21st century. People should be able to cooperate and work together. After all of the struggles of the past for equality and freedom, is it not time yet to stop the bickering over detail after detail? Leaders need to set the precedent. Meet in the middle is the goal—anything beyond is success.

Sharing in the Outcome
Unions and management—do they represent the same people? The union represents the company’s employees in bargaining. The management represents the company the employees work for. Yes, they do share one key group—the employees. Is it not almost worthless for a company to fight with a union that is trying to make that company’s employees happier? After all, a happy employee is a more productive employee. Vice versa, is it smart for a union to fight with a company that ultimately manages the employees they represent? They both have a vested interest in the employee. It is time to focus on that. “Management and employees have both different and similar interests, and neither can function without the other,” Barton says. Can’t you add unions into that statement too? Now I don’t think anyone is asking unions and management to yield to all demands. Some are in fact outrageous. However, compromising when possible for the greater good of the end users—the employees—is not a bad practice. If you make them happy, they’ll return the favor.

  When discussing the happiness of people involved in the union/management question, do not overlook the public. They will be the end users of the products manufactured by the employees who sign the contracts. Consumers are smart—borderline crafty. Especially in this economy, they look to products that they know—products that make them smile. When unions and management cooperate and partner for the better good of the employees, public perception goes up both for the company and the products. It is natural. In a time when people are losing jobs and are uncertain about their next steps, finding a company that cares is nice.

The End of the Story
Making the best out of tough situations is a great fight. However, it isn’t easy. If all union/management relationships could be optimistic, they could all be cooperative. It may take a while for that to happen, but it is worth the wait. “Ideals are still worthwhile,” Barton states, “even if they are difficult to put into practice.” In the end, nothing succeeds like success. The final outcomes must be visible and measurable. Union/management cooperation should make a real difference in the operation of the organizations involved and the lives of the people within them. Not all relationships have to be easy, but we can try, right?

November 2001 News for a Change Homepage

 In This Issue...
Global Quality from Johnsonville, WI, to Durban, South Africa, with Jennifer James
The Drugs Are
in the Mail

Virtually Amazing
Why Can’t We All Just Get Along
What Did You Just Say?

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

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