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From Conflict to Cooperation: Repairing the Union-Management Relationship, Part One

Let me just come straight out with it, “I like unions. Yes, I am a fan of unions“... 

...There are not too many manufacturing executives that will say that. Legend has it that union members are lazy, or overpaid, or just want job protection. I've heard numerous senior managers say that unions are chiefly responsible for American labor jobs getting outsourced to China.

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There's another side to the story 

Unions too often get blamed for management failures. If you think about it, unions are at the tail end of the operational food chain. The tail end typically catches the heat when things go south. That doesn't mean it was the main, or even a contributory cause. But no one speaks for the tail. Hence, you can throw all kinds of blame with complete impunity.

A real-world example 

About 25 years ago, I was the newly appointed production manager for a large chemical manufacturer. The workforce was unionized and relations with the union were not great, but not awful either. There was even a small unionized construction shop on site with about 60 people.

I'd been in my job for about two weeks when a senior business manager called me and asked me about a recently completed capital project. He opened with, “The approved amount of that expansion was $3.2 million but you spent over $7 million, what happened?“

The case for the prosecution

I started my investigation by asking the project manager, Chuck, to tell me what went wrong. His response? “That's easy, it was the union. They were never working when we scheduled them and took breaks whenever they wanted. The quality of their work was terrible too. We had to replace every gasket in every monomer line as they installed the wrong ones initially. We did our job. I would've brought that job in on time and budget if I could've used a non-union contractor.“

Next, I stopped by the office of the lead process engineer, Paul, and asked the same question. Sure enough, he too laid the blame at the unions' door.

“Everybody did their jobs well, except for the union. They were always arguing and disagreeing with us about, mostly stupid, stuff. Frankly, it was clear they didn't want to do any work. I planned on a 10-day startup. It took almost 3 months! You want to be successful in your new job? Find a way to get rid of the union!“

The story so far was consistent -- but didn't seem complete. So, I decided to talk to procurement and wandered into Jeff's office. I had worked with him before and knew he would give me the straight scoop. When I asked for his thoughts, Jeff smiled and said, “It was a pretty straightforward job. Lots of piping -- and the union shop has never been good at piping work. We knew that and used an outside shop that would prefab the piping and send it to the job in sequence. All the union had to do was bolt it up when it arrived! They couldn't even do that right. The fact is they just don't care.“

In defense of the unions 

It looked like an open and shut case but I kept thinking about Jeff's last comment. You see, I think most people DO care about their work. Sure, there are some out there that just want to do as little as possible for a paycheck, but most people want to make a difference. So, there was one last stop I had to make. I went into the construction shop. Clearly, this was territory where managers seldom ventured but there was a table with a couple chairs and a coffee pot. I poured myself a cup and sat down.

Some of the construction workers were in there but no one talked to me. Most avoided eye contact. I got another of coffee and waited. Finally, on my fourth cup of coffee, two guys wandered by my table. “What do you want?“ they asked. I introduced myself and explained I was trying to figure out why a capital project they had helped build was so far over budget.

“Good luck with that“ they laughed and walked away.

I sat down again. And waited. Then I waited some more. I knew word would spread about why I was there. And people will talk if you show you will listen. Finally, two hours later, I was surrounded by about 30 guys, and they seemed angry. They had a bunch of engineering drawings and spec sheets in their hands.

“You want to know what really happened on that project? Here's where you need to check:

“First, go talk to the project manager. He would only schedule us to work when he was in the plant, and would make us stop work when he left the site. He was here on average three days a week. We had to stop work for two weeks whilst he was on vacation and we couldn't work on other jobs as he wouldn't release us as he wanted the same work crews for continuity. So, we had to sit on our butts back in the shop whenever he wasn't here.

“Next, go ask the process engineer. He specified the wrong gaskets for the monomer pipelines. We caught the mistake, and told him about it. He told us to just go build it like the drawing shows. We ended up replacing every gasket -- it took weeks -- but what were we supposed to do? Look, here's the engineering spec sheet with his initials. Oh, and check out these piping layout drawings they gave us. Pipes on this drawing should connect here over on this piece of equipment on the next drawing. Except they don't! If we had built it this way, the project would've never worked.“ 

“What about procurement?“ I asked. “How did they do?“ 

“They were the worst of all!“ was the response. “They hired a company to bend the pipe and bring it on site. It's called pre-fabrication and is supposed to save construction time. Sounds good, right? Except the pipes wouldn't fit. Our pipe racks were built during World War 2 when there was a steel shortage. They built it in the field to make it work, but didn't follow the usual distances as they used scrap steel. We had to rework or scrap 70% of that pre-fabbed pipe.It was clear to us that no one cared about this project and if the company doesn't care, why should we?“

Cooperation is better than conflict

So here's my point. The union at the tail end of the chain got handed a host of problems created by others. None of it was malicious. But at the end, all fingers got pointed at the union. Our union craftsmen were not responsible for the project over-run. The problem was lack of leadership, exacerbated by an organization was compartmentally siloed.

Let me add one final comment. Just about everybody listens and responds to CEOs and senior executives but the tail end of the organization is rarely listened to. Their voice may be quiet -- or confused with miscommunication. But there is gold -- real gold -- in their message, if only you take the time to listen.

Find out more

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