There are hundreds of things that can come into play when negotiating a union contract. I will be discussing the key issues that have impacted contracts I have negotiated, or been a part of negotiating, over the years. I will also walk through some things you can proactively do to plan ahead for an upcoming negotiation.
The economic environment is a huge part of getting a contract ratified. When employees see and hear about expansion at the plant, watch new machinery being purchased, or worse hear about management receiving bonuses, it is very tough to sit down at the bargaining table and say that times are tough and you can’t give the union what they want. There are many factors that you as a General Manager/Plant Manager can’t influence i.e. the stock market, the politics of a President (or other elected official), other businesses moving in or moving out of your area… but there are plenty of proactive things that you can do to educate the membership (union committee included) about what is going on at the Plant.
As a GM you will get a limited number of meetings each year to sit down with your committee. There is a cost associated with pulling your committee in and talking to them; additionally, there is a cost in holding all employee meetings, but they are two tools that you can proactively do to ensure the information you want to convey is getting heard prior to sitting down at the bargaining table. Taking time to educate employees, helping them understand the costs associated with the business, is important to getting them onboard with ratifying a contract. For example, if healthcare costs are going to be your biggest issue it’s very easy to get a breakdown from your insurance company that will let employees know how much money is being spent on emergency room visits, prescription drugs, etc. Assuming employees understand the cost of simple items can mean delays in negotiation and cost you large amounts of money in the end.
The union committee and regional rep are major factors in successful contract ratification. I’ve watched a committee hold negotiations hostage over prescription drug costs because 1 of the 5 committee members has serious health issues. I’ve watched younger and older committee members clash over healthcare, retirement, and more. A good regional union rep can at times help keep a committee focused, but ultimately the committee has to work alongside their membership for the next 2, 3 or even 5 years and live with the results of what they negotiate.
Getting to know your committee is very important. It makes a lot of sense to keep track of the questions and comments that your committee members make as you meet with them and to have your HR reps spend time with these individuals to understand what issues they have going on in their lives. If you have a committee that is locked in with older members who you’ve dealt with for years and years then this is obviously less important than in locations where there is turnover and members change often. Something usually gets an employee to step up and want to be involved on the committee. The USW (United Steel Worker) locations I worked at normally had bylaws that mandated committee members participate in X number of meetings each year and this kept many interested employees from running for office. As you start to figure out why the employees are interested in running for office it is much easier to prepare for what information you will need to answer questions and effectively negotiate.
The management or lack of management in your plant is a key factor in how the committee and membership will vote on a contract. There is understandably a lot of attention paid to finances when negotiating, but the members also want to be treated right and want to know that management cares. Your lead people, supervisors and managers (or whatever your structure) all touch the membership on a daily basis. The number one reason why people leave their jobs is not money, it is their supervisor. If a supervisor cares and interacts well with their employees it is invaluable to you as a GM. Be consistent with discipline and your expectations with your salaried staff. A lack of concern, or lack of action when dealing with poor performance is seen by your membership – being fair and consistent will go a long way.
In multi-shift environments a lack of concern or inconsistency in dealing with shifts is a way to lose trust with the membership. I’ve seen 2nd and 3rd shift supervisors leave the premises while on the clock leaving employees unattended, had them work out special attendance deals, and even threaten to follow employees out and fight them. A large percentage of the worst accidents also occur on 2nd or 3rd shifts. Maybe it is a lack of structure? Maybe the supervisors are less experienced, or lax with rules/regulations because upper management is absent? Investing in a plant management audit or even an “under-cover” audit in your plant can go a long way toward helping you understand what your managers do when nobody is watching. Knowing what is happening on every shift will go a long way to avoid surprises at the negotiation table.
Many things impact the morale of the workers in a plant from pay to appreciation. I’ve been involved in many unionization efforts over the years and very few attempts have started from a purely economic standpoint. Much of the time when you get to the heart of why employees are interested in unionizing it’s a lack of communication, a lack of respect, and a lack of appreciation. All of these cost time (and yes, time is money) but each of the three aforementioned things can easily be accomplished at any workplace. You may be reading this thinking I have older managers and employees and things aren’t going to change. They can. It normally starts at the top, but it can also start by hiring the right HR staff and getting supervisor the correct training.
In late 2019 DHRS completed a Lead/Supervisor training at a large automotive parts manufacturer in Waverly, Ohio. The idea for getting the Leads trained was to give them the tools to solve many of their own problems and education to start understanding cause and effect around how employees are treated. We built a program focused on communication skills, conflict resolution, teamwork, empathy, discipline, motivation, feedback, and leadership skills. It made an immediate and dramatic difference in not only the participant’s attitudes and how they approached their roles, but also how their employees looked at them and the overall plant morale. Investing in your workforce can be expensive and time consuming but the alternative may be low morale and excess turnover, which can be much more expensive and time consuming. Additionally, when committee and membership feel respected and appreciated by supervisors who communicate expectations, are team players, and are empathetic and fair leaders, contract negotiations will be much smoother.
Your Human Resources staff are your proverbial canaries in the mine. Good HR employees get out amongst the employees in the plant and see and hear a lot. Good HR reps can tell you what is being said and talked about, which will help you immensely in preparing to negotiate. As you start to negotiate more-and-more contracts some of the same issues are bound to come up at different plants, but past practice and the way the “players” are accustomed to negotiating can be much different. I’ve negotiated contracts where the president has been in charge for so long and is so trusted that 75-90% of the contract can be worked out in a day, but on the other end of the spectrum I have been a part of talks where all, or nearly all, of the committee members are new and want to hash then rehash everything in the contract book.
Asking your union committee to meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis allows them to benefit by being off work and does cost their wages and time, but having an established time to communicate safety, costs to the business, insurance, and rules that are impacting both sides makes sense. If you don’t communicate with your committee until it’s time to negotiate, or they feel it is one-sided, expect to be weighed down talking about things that can waste weeks and keep you from discussing items that will make a much bigger impact on your bottom line. As someone who has been a part of multi-week talks that accomplished absolutely nothing, because each committee person wanted to air his/her own issues, I can assure you it is a painful exercise. Better and consistent communication pays dividends.
Your committee wants to know that you care enough to understand the need for effective leadership. Spending the time to really know what is happening in your plant when you are not there is important. Spending the money to get effective camera systems, investing in experienced Safety and HR professionals to ensure your people are safe and following the rules, finding experienced and talented managers will pay dividends.
As you start to prepare for your next contract talks be proactive, and I don’t mean be 30, 60, or 90 days proactive, I mean start to plan ahead a minimum of a year out and think about the level of knowledge each of the committee members has about the plant, the economy, the costs of doing business, legal and political ramifications and more and make a communication plan to get where you want to be. As you become more proactive and people become more educated, you will see tensions start to decrease in your negotiations and it will become easier to come to a peaceful and productive resolution. Signing on those signature lines can a wonderful thing.
I appreciate you reading our blog, and better yet checking out DHRS.
Stay strong, stay positive, and watch where you step in the field!