Mending Labor-Management Relationships

By Flint, James | Public Management, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Mending Labor-Management Relationships

Flint, James, Public Management

There are many ways for management and labor to relate to one another. Some ways actually build a positive work environment that, in turn, contributes to the effective delivery of local government services. Others that are based upon distrust, enmity, and disagreement, however, injure the work environment and derail service delivery. If services are to be effectively delivered, labor-management relations must focus on forging a cooperative bond and on problem solving, rather than on positions of power or egos.

First, I would like to stress that effective organizations are based upon effective relationships, and these are based upon trust. You can only build one trust-based relationship at a time. But this kind of partnership can multiply more rapidly if an organization behaves in accordance with certain shared values, focusing on honesty, respect, empowerment, collaboration, transparent behavior, and open communication.

The Continuum

Accordingly, I suggest that a relationship continuum exists, a series of stages in the evolution of how labor and management choose to relate to one another. After all, despite organizational history or personal baggage, this is a choice that is made by both parties.

The relationship continuum, as a model, is both descriptive and prescriptive. It is descriptive in that it identifies the status of the labor-management relationship by showing at which stage the relationship currently stands. It indicates whether it is effective and based upon the positive values we have described, or whether it is characterized by rancor. The further the relationship moves from Stage 1 toward Stage 5, the greater the acrimony.

The continuum also is prescriptive. That is, the longer an organization can stay in Stage 1 or Stage 2, the better the chance to develop an effective relationship between labor and management, resulting in improved service delivery. Thus, the stage at which the organization finds itself prescribes the direction it may need to take toward "curing" any relationship ills (see Figure 1).

Case Study: Alameda, California

In 1995, the city of Alameda and the union that represents the nonmanagement, sworn members of its fire department entered into meet and confer negotiations for a new wage-and-benefit memorandum of understanding (MOU). After three years of protracted and unsuccessful negotiations, however, an impasse was reached, and arbitration became the next step needed in the process of solving the problem. The arbitration itself required nearly another year for both sides to present their respective arguments and for the arbitrator to reach a decision.

During these four years, the relationship between management and labor substantially deteriorated and even became adversarial in its dynamic. In fact, it was driven in large part by the emotional frustration roused by the length of the process, the huge cost to both parties, and the accusatory workplace environment. The failure to reach a successful conclusion on the MOU took its toll.

In June 1997, the leaders of both management and labor began meeting informally, or externally to the arbitration process, to explore whether it was possible to begin building a relationship that would solve this problem without further action. While it was impossible to complete this exploration before arbitration ended, both parties agreed to continue a dialogue to determine whether an acceptable alternative could be found.

Both labor and management identified interest-based negotiations (IBN) as a prospective vehicle for beginning to repair the severely damaged relationship, with the ultimate goal of solving the wage-and-benefit dispute. Alameda committed itself to funding IBN training for both labor and management's negotiating teams.

Considerable effort was made to set realistic expectations about what could be achieved, given the investment of both time and money in this dispute. …

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