Some organizations and unions look at each other the way Benjamin Franklin looked at guests: “Like fish, [they] begin to smell after three days.”
But companies that don’t know how to establish harmonious relationships with labor organizations can be just as putrid without learning leaders to engage, manage, influence and communicate the skills needed to work cooperatively with unions.
“It’s taking them [leadership] away from the defensive posture and moving them more into a partnership mentality with our union workers,” said Elizabeth Bryant, vice president of Southwest Airlines University.
For Southwest Airlines Inc., the most unionized carrier in the country, that matters even in times of low union membership.
In a February survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.7 percent of wage and salary workers in the private sector belong to unions, down from 16.8 percent in 1983. This drop in organized labor might be why lawyer Wade Fricke, a shareholder at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, said CLOs and their organizations “have no idea what to expect” when approaching a new or established union.
“The concept of labor organizing is a pretty live, juicy topic, and as the labor board continues to make decisions, there’s a whole bunch of other opportunities,” he said. “The labor movement is realizing there’s more out there to organize than the big old Ford plant, so there’s an uptick in organizing. Labor is doing a pretty good job reading the landscape.”
Learning to work with unions begins with understanding their purpose and the benefits they have for the organization. “For whatever reasons over the last decades, there’s a perception in some circles that it [the union] is a bad thing, a drag on their bottom line,” Fricke said. “They need to treat that relationship as they would a business partner.”
Phil Wilson, the president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute, said to think about the union as a kind of politician. “You start to discover ways that you make the relationship work,” he said. Like elected officials, union leaders need to do something for their constituents — their members — to stay in office, and helping them deliver is a way to gain rapport.
No matter the metaphor, helping an organization move toward a better relationship with a union starts with CLOs being educated on general practice and their company’s own requirements. Professional programs such as ones offered through Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School cover labor-management relations, dispute resolution and organizational conflict management.
Sally Klingel, director of labor management relations programming at ILR’s Scheinman Institute, travels around the country working with unions and employers to strategize, teach negotiation skills and help mitigate problems before they start. “Our programs are targeted at individual professionals. We spend time on how to create a labor-management relationship.”
Because of changes in the labor landscape, there are fewer universities with professional development branches as intensive as Cornell’s, Klingel said, but Michigan State University and Harvard University offer a few options.
Other organizations, such as the Labor Relations Institute, offer training that can prepare companies to renegotiate contracts and approach union relations with a cooperative attitude. Wilson said his group focuses on the “left of boom,” a phrase taken from military jargon. In 2007, improvised explosion device attacks spiked in Middle Eastern war zones, and the U.S. military found the answer to preventing them was in acting long before the “boom” — left of it on a horizontal time line.
“A union campaign is a boom event for a company,” Fricke said. “There are things that lead up to it, and there are things that happen afterward.”
Leading the Leaders
Once a CLO gets acclimated, it’s time to get the rest of the C-suite up to speed.
“If the senior executives don’t sign off, in today’s world it’s too easy for the rug to be pulled out from either the CLO or the negotiators,” said Phil Rosen, a shareholder at law firm Jackson Lewis and head of the firm’s labor practice group. “It’s important that they are part of the process … in terms of the negotiations or the labor relations posture that the C-suite feels is appropriate. Then it translates down.”
That trickle-down effect at Southwest Airlines means every manager has to go through training to learn about the company’s relationship with unions as well as why it’s important to maintain a strong relationship with labor leaders.
“We really value and take pride in having strong relationships in our unions,” Bryant said. “You’ll find the same philosophy throughout because it is something that starts at the top and is fed down through the organization and is then reinforced in a learning and leadership value.”
Developing the right communication style and keeping in contact builds trust and keeps both parties informed on future initiatives. Conflict occurs when unions get left at the back door, Fricke said. A union reacts negatively when it is embarrassed in front of its membership because it has been left out and “has all kinds of ability to make your life a living hell.”
Rosen said it’s also important that a company understands contractual requirements for disseminating information to union employees — bypassing a union can be just as detrimental to the relationship as not communicating at all. Also, everyone in an organization should understand that model and why it is in place. Clearing any actions with legal counsel can help avoid breaking the rules.
Bryant said Southwest’s program aims to equip leaders to have productive conversations and develop relationships with labor leaders. That includes bringing union members and leaders right into the classroom for the first session of Southwest Airlines University’s courses. “That meet-and-greet is important because it sends a message to employees that we support the union relationship.”
Making sure leadership understands the benefits of a cooperative union relationship is paramount to resolve any issues. Determine early what unions can contribute to help achieve business objectives.
“We have the same end in mind, which is to take care of our employees, our company and ensure operational excellence; that relationship is critical,” Bryant said of Southwest Airlines and its union.
A healthy relationship with unions can streamline operations to make them more efficient. For example, Fricke said union workers in manufacturing industries often know the most efficient operational techniques, and their contributions to planning can improve production rates — if the company seeks their guidance.
Southwest Airlines has avoided the fate of the rash of airlines declaring bankruptcy in the past 20 years. The company’s vice president of labor relations, Randy Babbitt, said part of the reason why has to do with how well-run its operations are, which stems from how the company and its labor groups collaborate.
Avoiding bankruptcy is obviously good for the company’s employees, who didn’t experience pay cuts, layoffs or furloughs like other carriers have enacted in light of their financial woes, but also for the company’s image. Having a cooperative relationship with unions can make a company stand out in the public eye.
“You usually will be able to outshine your competitors,” Rosen said. “In today’s world, most companies are working hard at best practices, so part of it is getting ahead, and part of it is staying with the competition.”
Filed under: Leadership Development
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To read a sidebar on Southwest Airlines' learning programs that teach employees how to work with unions, please click here.