ORG Blog

Part 5: The Current State of Employee Engagement in America

Part 5: The current state of employee engagement in America

This is the fifth installment of a blog series, “Collaboration and Employee Engagement; Ideas Whose Time Has Come, Again.” Earlier, we explored the beginnings of labor-management cooperation in the 1960s, the formation of the National Quality of Work Center (NQWC) that conceptualized collaboration between labor unions and management for shared benefit, and the early experiments that moved cooperation to become the new normal. Now, we bring it current, offering present day examples and offering a vision for rekindling an idea whose time has come, again! 

In reviewing this early history of joint labor-management approaches to significant organizational change and to meaningful employee involvement and engagement, it is striking how the underlying principles, philosophies, values and design remain the same today

The parties, organized labor and management, continue to share interests in the health and productivity of the enterprise, and in tapping the energy, creativity and experience of the people who drive it.

There is a substantially smaller percentage of the private sector workforce represented by organized labor today (there is an increased percentage in the public sector). However, in those organizations where both union and management have a stake in the on-going viability of the enterprise the basic concept of a “joint” approach to maximizing the contribution of the “human resource” makes just as much sense today as it did in 1974.

In the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s, collaborative efforts have been successfully undertaken by companies and unions as varied as:

  • Goodyear Tire & Rubber and the United Rubberworkers (now a division of United Steelworkers of America);
  • Deere & Co and the Agricultural Division of the United Autoworkers;
  • American Airlines and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), and American Pilots Association (APA);
  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS); Boeing and the United Auto Workers (UAW)

All of these have engaged in joint labor-management initiatives to make the kinds of fundamental organizational and cultural changes which were first pioneered by the National Quality of Work Center (NQWC) in the 1970’s.

In each of these and many other instances, companies and unions continue to find a basic truth: effectively tapping the “resource” in Human Resources, that is, the men and women who are on the front lines daily, doing the basic work of the enterprise. They have proven once again that such cooperative efforts pay substantial dividends in both markedly increased productivity and substantially improved quality of working life and employee engagement.

American manufacturers are increasingly using several approaches to productivity and quality improvement: Lean Manufacturing (developed by Toyota), training and development of shop-floor “high performing work teams”, and a statistical approach called “Six Sigma”. Each of these depends to some extent on the inclusion and involvement of the front-line employee.

There is, however, a notable difference between these approaches taken as management-initiated efforts and those undertaken jointly by company and union leadership.

In unionized settings, management-initiated change involving shop floor employees continues to be viewed with suspicion and often resisted by the union(s), and by the employees themselves. One of the fundamental reasons for this response is fear of job-loss, spurred by lack of trust and troubled history.

If the enterprise is made more productive, meaning more output per unit of labor input, it is natural to assume that the same or increased production can be achieved with fewer people.

History has consistently demonstrated that reduction in workforce is one of the first actions U.S. management will take to reduce costs. (By contrast, Japanese manufacturers tend to look at any and all means, other than reduction in workforce, to achieve gains

By contrast, when companies and unions jointly take the initiative to engage employees and improve productivity and quality, there is a significantly different response and level of cooperation. The reasons are several: union and management are clearly acting together to involve employees and union members; employees themselves are directly involved in operational problem-solving and decision-making; and there is often an explicit agreement that there will be no job-loss as a result of productivity gains emerging from jointly undertaken employee engagement activities.

The road to the motivated and engaged front-line worker is vastly smoother and easier to travel.


Next: Final installment of this blog series – “Collaboration and Employee Engagement; Ideas Whose Time Has Come, Again.”



Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes is the founder and President of Overland Resource Group and can be reached at 

Nick Bizony

Nicholas Bizony is long time member of  the consulting consortium at Overland and is a founding Principal with The Lakeland Group, where he consults to major organizations in the public and private sectors, enabling them to achieve significant improvements in productivity and quality, cost reduction, and increased customer satisfaction. Nick can be reached at




Topics: Collaboration Labor Management Leadership