The best of management-labor relations, the worst of management-labor negotiations

September 28, 2011
By: Eric Lundin

Two stories of management-labor relations came to my attention in the past few days, and the two stories couldn’t be more different from each other. They’re so opposite that Charles Dickens’ well-known introduction to A Tale of Two Cities accurately describes them.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …”

The first article is the cover story in the Route 422 Business Advisor, a monthly publication that focuses on the business corridor bounded by routes 422, 100, 202, and 30 in eastern Pennsylvania. The company at the heart of the article is Superior Tube Co. Inc. (Collegeville, Pa.). Despite the shaky economy, Superior is in one of its longest growth periods in four decades and predicting 50 percent growth in sales over the next few years.

Superior President and CEO Tony Jost, credits the cooperation and contributions from all employees, union and nonunion, for this wave of success. Superior executives and union representatives (from United Steelworkers Local 9455-0) enlisted the help of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service to create and maintain a cooperative negotiating environment. Two key elements were interspersing union and nonunion people around the negotiating table, rather than sitting opposite each other, and listing the key concerns of company management and unionized workers, most of which were similar, if not the same.

Anyone familiar with Henry Ford’s union-busting techniques knows that this is a remarkable example of enlightened bargaining. Ford used a network of spies, Ford Service Department, to sniff out and harass organizers, and they weren’t shy about dishing out physical beatings to intimidate union officials (and allegedly two women who tagged along to pass out pamphlets at a certain union-organizing event).

The other story comes from Chicago. Rahm Emanuel, the city’s mayor and former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, used a different negotiating strategy altogether. He and the head of Chicago Public Schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, circumvented collective bargaining. Did I say hard-charging Rahm Emanuel and results-oriented Jean-Claude Brizard? They cooked up a plan to appeal directly to the teachers of Chicago schools. The teachers were promised a pay bonus ($1,250) and more discretionary spending in return for waiving the current contract and putting in a longer day (90 minutes) at school. You know, to teach more. Three schools initially took the plunge; Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) officials are said to be furious about this. Since then 10 more joined this breakaway faction. CTU officials are furious about this too.

Do the two sides have to be polar opposites? Superior’s experience says no. Even if you have an anti-union bias, I am sure you know that the working conditions during the early days of the Industrial Revolution were somewhere between dreadful and atrocious, and union pressure helped change that. Likewise if you’re pro-union, I’d bet you’d have to admit some union practices and rules are downright silly at best and inexcusably counterproductive at worst. My particular favorite was the railway union’s insistence at staffing all trains with coal-shoveling personnel (per the contract, of course), including trains that had switched to diesel engines before the contract expired.

And regardless of which side you’re on, I think you probably smiled, just a bit, at Emanuel and Brizard’s brazen yet effective tactics in attempting to improve Chicago’s schools.
Eric Lundin

Eric Lundin

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8262