United We Stand

To win in the world economy, we must develop a new and productive entente with organized labor -- that historic adversarial relationship -- by doing eight things:

  • Business and labor must adopt new criteria in dealing with one another. The old adversarial relationships have produced distrust. Unions have competed with management and other unions in a game of bargaining one-upmanship, creating an endless inflationary cycle. Despite managements perennial position (We cant afford it!), the unions were almost always able to push their demands through. What emerged was a tradition of distrust. Negotiations often boiled down to a brutish animosity indulged by both parties. What is needed is a united front against the erosion of productivity and foreign competition.
  • Business must adopt new criteria and make new judgments. Management has generally refused to allow its workers any voice in making decisions of policy or strategy. Little wonder, then, that eroding worker motivation has contributed to lagging productivity and declining quality. The more indifferent managers are to employees, the more intransigent and resentful the employees become.

    Business seems to recognize its obligations to its workers only when a crisis develops, when a companys fortunes lag, when it is about to be struck. To improve its relationship with labor, business must adopt a new, enlightened attitude toward its workers and implement it in meaningful ways -- more candor, greater consideration, and a sensitivity to individual needs.

  • Labor must defuse its internal political problems. If unions are to deal with management realistically, they must first stop breeding adversarial attitudes within their own ranks, between local unions, and between industry-wide unions seeking to encroach upon each other. Internal strife prompts a militant stance toward management and results in unrealistic demands on business. Four other changes are worthy of organized labors attention: 1) a new era of democracy must begin with a move toward more useful dealings with management; 2) rank-and-file should be told of the 1 situation about employers ability to meet with new wage demands and whether they need concessions from the union; 3) politics within the local should not set those demands but should ensure that leadership, policy, enforcement, bargaining, solicitation, and general procedures represent the viewpoint of the majority; and 4) younger people, women, African American, and Hispanics on the union rolls need to be heard.
  • The challenge of job security must be attacked head-on. During recessions, jobs are eliminated, and many workers panic. Workers direct their disenchantment at both the employer and labor unions in equal measure. Many believe that both lead them down a double-dealing and double-talking path. The concessions granted by workers in the interest of job security, generally do not lead to that goal. Resentment and fear involving job security heighten the adversarial relationship. For decades, workers complained about their employers, but still believed that somehow the owner-manager would protect their jobs. Now, that assurance has disappeared, leaving millions of workers feeling helpless and angry. No company can guarantee job protection. The solution lies in training, preparation, reorientation, and communications. Both management and labor are obligated to develop training programs to deal with new automation, robotics, and retraining in the event of plant transfers.
  • Top priority: Re-education of employees. Why do we have to look at labor and management, at what they are doing and what they stand for, as either good or bad? The reality is somewhere in the middle, and we must reach that middle ground through an educational process.
  • Clearing the air with new semantics. Specific words or terms in management-labor dealings often raise red flags and create controversy. Both sides know it, yet both indulge in wars of words. Soft words only work if both sides use them. But will management or labor use the better expression for fear of seeming too conciliatory? If we expect a new semantics of harmony to replace the old, failed semantics of conflict, its use must be mutual.
  • Stop using the media for effect. The unions belabor management. Management strikes out at unions. The media jump on it all, responding to the hyperbole of the vituperative blasts. Both sides must stop using the media as a vehicle for adversarial activities. The results are harmful, often to both sides; posturing for the media arouses resentment and builds controversies.
  • Bargaining: honest and realistic or face-saving and hostile? When I talk with union leaders, I am told that labor may be amenable to some cooperation as long as the solution makes labor look good to its constituency. The heart of the collective bargaining process is an extension of this charade, spawning months of talks which inevitably look more like predictable set pieces than actual negotiation. It is nothing more than a face-saving gesture.

Joint management-labor committees charged with defining how business and unions can coexist more constructively may help to remove many, time-wasting steps by thrashing out issues in a closed advisory meeting and then influencing leadership on both sides for the resolution without resorting to animosity or charade.

What is needed is an entire change in the process and attitude as management sits with labor or resolve problems.

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