Labor Unions Become Business Partners

Personnel Journal, August 1993 | Go to article overview

Labor Unions Become Business Partners


Protestants have made friends with the Catholics in Northern Ireland. Palestinians and Israelis are rebuilding the Middle East. Bosnians, Croats and Serbs are reuniting Yugoslavia in peace. Unions and management are working together as--business partners--for the benefit of both groups.

These scenarios might seem pretty far-fetched. It's difficult to imagine any of these traditional adversaries burying the hatchet--other than in each other--and working together for the common good.

Unions and management haven't often tried to kill each other, as is the case with the other adversaries, but they often have been pulling in opposite directions, and there have been some hard feelings. Now some unions and the employers that they represent are learning to work together. In a highly competitive business environment, in which most firms are struggling to stay alive, the adversarial approach is counterproductive. "It isn't what employees want, and it isn't what drives success," explains William K. Ketchum, AT&T's vice president for labor relations.

On June 21, the cooperative joint efforts of General Motors and the United Auto Workers union paid off for both parties. The company announced that it will shift production of some of its automobiles from a plant in Mexico to one in Lansing, Michigan, creating at least 800 new jobs at the U.S. plant. This action resulted from a complete turnaround in union-management relations within the past year, according to UAW Vice President Stephen Yokich.

This isn't an isolated incident, however. For many years, unions have supported--in one way or another--the industries whose employees they serve by providing day care, training and other services. Today, that service is taking on a new dimension. Today, the union is becoming a business partner.

One of the earliest cooperative efforts grew out of the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) and the Associated General Contractors in 1969. This effort, called the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund, oversees the training that members of the union receive. The fund has provided safety training, workplace literacy and ESL training. It also recently worked with the EPA to combine training in the cleanup of hazardous-waste sites with the actual cleanup of public waste sites, including removing lead-based paint from publicly owned housing units and bridges, according to Arthur A. Coia, general president of LIUNA.

In 1987, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) and the International Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers worked with Rohm & Haas Kentucky Inc. in Louisville, Kentucky, to assist with the design of a new plant, by preventing design flaws and expensive retrofitting. The Design Committee grew out of a longstanding attitude of cooperation between the unions and management.

Stamford, Connecticut-based Xerox Corp. was struggling during the early '80s, but has made a significant comeback, thanks in large part to union-management cooperation initiatives. Xerox became the first major U.S. firm to win back market share from the Japanese without government intervention, at the same time as its return on assets increased from 8% to 14.7%, according to Joe Laymon, director of corporate industrial relations in Rochester, New York. Cooperative efforts at Xerox have included an agreement with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (ACTWU) that allows the union to bid on any work that Xerox wants to contract out, a leaner-but-friendlier contract-negotiation process and a new, jointly developed factory design, called a focus factory, which allows quick accommodation to changes in product demand.

Not to be outdone, AT&T and its unions--The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)--are refocusing the entire organization, using a framework called the Workplace of the Future, to make the unions and the company true partners in every aspect of the business. …

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