It has been 119 years since a federal holiday was established to celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers, and it is worthy of celebration, indeed. Without the American worker fueling the economic engine of our country, we would never have become the most productive, affluent nation in the world. But in today’s global economy, regaining that status– and recapturing U.S. jobs– will require more than the mighty muscle and ingenuity of American workers.
It has been proven time and again that overcoming monumental challenges requires multiple parties pulling in the same direction. And it takes enlightened leaders to take up the reins, discover fresh ideas, seek out different perspectives, and build alliances. Some of the most powerful partnerships in existence today were born out of embattled labor and management leaders locked in intractable conflicts who learned to focus on their shared interests and join forces to achieve astounding turn-arounds:
- Three years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration and its two largest unions– the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists– had what was considered my most to be the worst labor-management relationship in the federal sector. They were embroiled in bitter litigation battles and buckling under the load of hundreds of thousands of grievances. The toxic workplace environment registered just two spots from dead last on employee satisfaction in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey. Today, leaders there credit the undertaking of a collaborative process with their ability to implement a National Airspace System modernization process (NextGen) - the largest technological transformation ever undertaken in the federal sector. And by 2012, the FAA’s ranking in the Best Places survey had improved by 60 percent.
- Today, Boeing—Philly today continues to turn out the V-22 Osprey and Chinook rotorcraft– the workhorses of the U.S. armed forces– largely because management and UAW leaders there recognized 15 years ago that learning to collaborate in reinventing the facility was the only way to turn the tide on a corporate decision to shut it down. Through the establishment of wall-to-wall employee involvement teams and a structured labor-management steering committee that oversees the collaborative process, the facility is achieving unprecedented levels of product quality, turn time, safety and employee engagement.
- And no summary of turn-around success would be complete with the historic and heroic achievements made at Ford Motor Company, due in large part to their partnership with the United Auto Workers. “If we hadn’t sat down with the UAW in 2006, there is no way we would be where we are today,” said Ford’s Global Vice President of Labor Affairs, Marty Mulloy at the May conference of the Labor and Employment Relations Association, as he ticked off the list of improvements made from 2008 to 2013: market share shifting from a multiyear declining pattern to an enviable increasing one; stock price moving from $1 a share to more than $15; from credit rating of “junk” to “investment grade (with $23 billion in debt repaid, without a government bail-out); from a $13.8 billion loss to a net profit. Mulloy’s UAW counterpart, Jimmy Settles, Jr., summed the transformation up well: “We used to know that the more we helped the company improve, the more of our members they would lay off. But as time has gone on, we’ve learned how to improve productivity and save jobs… When its crisis time, we’re all in it together.”
And as this Labor Day approaches, wouldn’t it be truly worthy of celebration if labor and management leaders across the country could heed that lesson. The fact of the matter is: Labor is only part of the equation. Without a healthy employer, there can be no work. Without work, there is no worker. The time for labor-management collaboration is now. The crisis is here and we are all in it together.