Like most others in the labor relations arena, we watched with great interest the events and debates surrounding the recent vote by the workforce at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN, on whether or not to be represented by the United Auto Workers. Clearly enormous gaps exist between those who believe that unions are a thorn in the side of any organization and those who believe the UAW and VW had the opportunity to launch an alternative approach to traditional labor-management relations.
However, neither of those positions speaks to the question of what alternatives exist for organizations that already are unionized. A check of domestic labor history shows that union de-certifications are rare. Or as one of our clients, who is a plant manager, put it, “Divorce is not really an option, so where do we go from here?”
To help labor and management leaders answer that question, we utilize the Labor Relations Spectrum,™ a tool we developed to illustrate the range of options available. In the past week alone, we introduced the Spectrum to leaders from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters who attended our “Conflict to Collaboration” workshops at their Public Services Division Conference, and we shared it with management members of the Labor Relations Association of Passenger Railways. In both cases, participants indicated it helped them not only consider how to characterize their current labor relations environment, but more importantly, to consider how they could improve it.
As the popular catchphrase goes, most management and union leaders (like humans in general), “Don’t know what they don’t know,” meaning they are generally unaware of things with which they have had no direct exposure or experience. For example, a union leader who has spent his or her working life locked in conflict with management has trouble imagining a company that routinely invites labor leaders into business briefings or seeks their counsel on how a particular decision under consideration may be received by employees in the field. Similarly, the plant manager whose only experience with union leadership has been witnessing labor-organized work stoppages or the filing of mountains of frivolous grievances has a hard time envisioning an interest-based discussion with a union leader sincerely trying to find win-win outcomes.
All of the labor-management relationships mentioned above– and more– are alive and well today, and are reflected in the Labor Relations Spectrum™. It includes descriptions of various types of relationships, ranging from an orientation toward adversarial at one end of the horizontal axis to collaboration at the other. It succinctly describes the behaviors and areas of focus undertaken by those engaged in traditional, operational or strategic levels of interaction.
And perhaps most importantly, as the Teamster leaders and railway labor relations professionals discovered, the Spectrum invites reasoned discussion and fosters contemplation. In fact, it injects a measure of clarity into the often murky depths of labor-management relationships.
It provides a model that enables leaders to consider the state of the labor-management relationship from the perspective of slightly detached onlookers, and helps them avoid bogging down in the emotion of past or present ill will or angst. When labor and management counterparts utilize the Spectrum together as a conversational tool, it enables them to hit “pause” on the conflict of the moment, and instead become colleagues looking together at a graphic, calmly discussing how one description or another most closely mirrors their own experience and what other approaches they could consider for their own relationship.
Once they’ve arrived at what they agree is an apt-description of their current labor relations environment, it then becomes a natural next step for leaders to consider the type of relations they want to have in the future. They may recognize, for example, that remaining squarely planted in a traditional labor relations orientation limits their ability to meaningfully involve employees in improving the operation and/or the quality of work life.
Making a deliberate decision about where they want to be on the Spectrum helps assure the parties will not let the lack of a decision become the decision. That indecision all too often results in the relationship type remaining murky, unspoken and ambiguous. In the absence of clarity, the parties default to what Author and Change Agent Barry Oshry refers to as “The Dance of Blind Reflex” in which the parties repeat familiar behaviors even when they continue to produce unfavorable, sub-optimum results.
The power is in having the dialogue and then in working together to move from where history, happenstance or blind reflex landed the relationship, toward a mutually agreed-upon desired future state. In our experience, when labor and management leaders take deliberate, shared control of their relationship, rather than it controlling them, their interests are always better served, as are those of their members/employees, stakeholders, customers and the organization as a whole.
“So what‘s the best place to be?” one of the Teamster leaders asked, looking up from his copy of the 11x17-inch color-coded Spectrum he’d been studying.
“Where ever you and your management counterpart decide it should be,” I said.
Cathy Wright is a member of the Consulting Consortium at Overland Resource Group. She is president of New Ground Consulting Group, Inc. Cathy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.