The Labor Factor

By Stephen J. Cabot

Manufacturers often hire labor-relations attorneys to maintain their status as union-free companies. The first thing I say to clients when they hire me is, "I understand that your goal is to be union-free and that's fine. But if that's the only thing you want, you're not going to make it." Companies whose only goal is to keep unions out will find that they will be successful at it for a time; then, however, complacency sets in and they'll drop the ball. That's when a union comes in.

The difference between being a unionized manufacturer and a non-union company comes down to labor relations-not simply making an effort at labor relations, but elevating labor relations to the point in which it is part of the company's overall business plan. Most business plans are focused purely on the company's technical needs of producing more to be competitive. Until now, there has been an absolute, unadulterated failure by business to incorporate labor relations into their long-term plans. But a company's overall success depends on formally incorporating goals for the working environment into the business plan. The company needs to set labor-relations strategies for years down the road, as it does for its financial and marketing goals.

Mission Statement: Possible

To make the proper beginning for an effective human-resources plan, a company has to start with itself. What is its philosophy as a whole, its mission? The company must delineate its mission statement- and that statement has to distance itself from such archaic phrases as "employees are our biggest asset" First of all, this is a demeaning statement. Employees are not "assets;" they are nor bricks and mortar, or equipment that can be sold or depreciated on a tax return. They are people, and they have concerns and individual aspirations as other people do. Thus, the company's first goal in creating a strong labor-relations policy is respect for its employees-for their concerns and individual goals, in particular.

Many entrepreneurs have built business empires by first realizing how little they know, and by then realizing that their employees need to feel good about the company. Those business owners soon learned that ASK is the most powerful word in the English language. An employee-relations action plan must be built on the "asking" strategy. Ask every employee, top to bottom, how they feel about the company. Ask about their perceived issues and concerns. And ask them these same questions as often as possible. This is where respect for employees begins. Eventually, the asking strategy should include asking the company's employees what they feel the company's mission ought to be.

Asking in Action

My work with these companies includes creating questionnaires for their employees. These cover the following points:

  • How do employees perceive communication between themselves and management? Is it effective? Is it one-way or two-way?
  • How do they perceive morale in the work place?
  • How do they perceive supervisory practices, policies and procedures? Are these applied consistently?
  • Do the employees trust upper management? Do they feel that the executives keep their promises?
  • Do the employees feel that they and management work together as a team?
  • Do the employees perceive that the training they get meets their needs? Dose the training include the handling of personal and family problems?

The questions are phrased so that employees can circle their answers, showing whether they agree or disagree and to what extent. The weighted averages from these answers, when compared to other normative, statistical factors, are then used to show management the issues that employers should address in the labor-relations portion of the overall business plan. These averages can also determine the risk the company faces of a possible unionization.

Up to now, company executives have done a wonderful job of telling their employees how important they are to the company's success. A labor-relations plan gives the company an opportunity to put its money where its mouth is. Such a plan builds a work-force environment that is consistent with the company's business plan and, at same time, builds morale. In other words, such a plan would make unions unnecessary by reducing labor strife, minimizing unnecessary litigation and building a cohesive environment in which employees like coming to work -- and feel they are stakeholders in the company.

Companies need to both create a labor-relations plan, and then to put such a plan in practice. Until they do, labor lawyers like me will be busier and wealthier than we should be.

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