Labor Pains: Repairing the Management-Union Relationship

There are no magic bullets, but one approach to consider is the establishment of a joint labor-management committee.
by | September 8, 2010 AT 5:00 PM

There are few management challenges as daunting as what to do when labor relations break down. When things go bad with your union, your own employees are working against you.

A while back, an urban school district I was consulting with was looking at revamping its bus transportation contract. During a school committee meeting at which the topic was about to be raised, some 30 or so unionized drivers came into the room chanting slogans and waving signs, guided by a leader from "national." For close to an hour, the meeting was suspended. Instead of talking about cost-savings, the focus shifted to politics, power and the ugly stew of personal recriminations.

It is hard enough to drive money-saving cost efficiencies, but a dysfunctional labor management relationship can make change almost impossible.

The drive for better, faster, cheaper government is all about a continuous re-examination of work processes in an effort to discover innovative ways of producing public value. Oftentimes, these changes will generate fear and opposition in the workforce.

Want to add a GPS system to your snowplows to gather better information about route optimization and worker productivity? Or introduce a decentralized purchasing system that allows employees to purchase supplies themselves, rather than going through a centralized purchasing group? Thinking about outsourcing janitorial services? If your union-management relationship is marked by distrust, attempting any such changes could lead to World War III.

When the labor-management relationship is broken, even daily routines can become contentious and ugly. One political appointee who was pushing outsourcing recalls that not only union members, but certain members of his own management staff would leave an elevator when he got on.

Work doesn't go well in an atmosphere like that. But what can be done?

There are no magic bullets, but one approach you might consider is the establishment of a joint labor-management committee focused on process improvement. Unlike the traditional labor-management groups that typically deal with safety and other contract issues, these joint process improvement committees (PICs) are focused on driving organizational efficiencies. These committees are formed with clear ground rules that enable both sides to pursue their interests in a way that is based on mutual respect and communication.

Leaders from both labor and management, and perhaps elected officials, should discuss what needs to come out of such a labor-management PIC initiative. If the situation between labor and management is already problematic, it may make sense to have an experienced facilitator run the meetings.

Establishing trust comes first. It may be advisable to write into the guidelines of the committee an upfront agreement that there will be no negative job impacts for existing employees. Instead, the goal will be to introduce better work processes in a manner that will allow attrition over time to generate efficiencies, or to provide displaced workers the training and opportunity to shift to other positions.

Such an agreement cuts into the short-term cost-saving potential, but may be necessary to make any change possible. Edward Deming, the intellectual godfather of the total quality management movement, believed that workers cannot be effective participants in efforts to improve work outcomes if they are afraid. Driving out fear and boosting trust is one of the most important benefits of a joint labor-management PIC.

On the flipside there will be little gain unless the union participants are willing to relax the often stringent work definitions within existing contracts and allow for greater cross functional work by employees. "Many public sector organizations who have undertaken these initiatives have obtained remarkable outcomes," says Marcia Calicchia, Director of Public Sector Programs at Cornell's ILR School, which has produced a terrific "how to" guide for these labor-management committees. "It does, however, take some emotional intelligence to be able to recognize and respect the constraints the other party is operating under."

If you get public managers together and turn off the microphones, the vast majority will admit that they see their unions as barriers to efficiency rather than partners in progress. But public unions aren't going anywhere, anytime soon. Unlike the private sector, which has seen union membership dwindling for decades, public-sector unions are growing.

Union obstructionism doesn't help the cause of more efficient government. More enlightened union leaders are beginning to see that it is essential to the long-term well being of their members to promote the cause of effective public service delivery. Joint labor-management process improvement task forces can be one approach to go from deadlock to progress.

Once the particular change initiative for which the committee was formed is over, the group may find itself meeting informally to explore further improvements, and just to keep the lines of communication open. While management often likes to complain about unions and the straitjacket of the contract, workers are often a source of great ideas -- if they are asked.