Monday, March 15, 2010

Union vs Management: Who's At Fault?

According to a story in Friday's Wall Street Journal, the airline industry is beginning to face another challenge to their survival.  After years of concessions, union members are demanding wage and benefit increases which, according to airline executives, are going to seriously damage their ability to recover.

Same Old Story

Here we go again . . . union and management, each charging the other with being greedy and self-centered.  We've seen it again and again and will unfortunately continue to see it in the future.

So which side is at fault in this situation?  Who is driving down the organization's competitiveness by ignoring the other group's needs.  In my opinion . . . it's both.

I'm not close enough to the airline negotiations to talk about their situation directly, so I'm going to approach the issue in a much more general sense.  I have been intimately involved with several companies throughout my career that were unionized and, on one occasion, led a company where all but a very few of the workers belonged to a union.

In most cases, I have noticed that people on each side tend to approach negotiations with the objective of getting as much as they can rather than working toward an agreement that benefits both parties - in other words, the company as a whole.  Throughout the process, each side tries to win while the other loses.  Whatever happens in the negotiations, when the company doesn't win; everyone ends up losing.

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

There are companies that resolved this issue and, as a result, have been very successful.  After all, one of the most basic premises in business is the idea that an organization can only succeed over the long-term if everyone is focused on the same objectives.  When one group is focused on its own interests, the other tends to follow suit and the company is never truly successful.

Whenever I worked in a unionized company, I spent a great deal of time on the relationship between union members and white collar workers.  When I led an organization that was  unionized, I invited a union representative to participate in strategic planning meetings because I felt that the person could play a big part in getting workers on-board with specific initiatives.

The benefits of including the union in the strategic planning process were huge.  Besides the success achieved with initiatives that directly involved unionized workers, people felt that their opinions were respected and valued by the management team.  Trust also increased because of the openness that was demonstrated by letting a union representative hear - and actively participate in - the high-level planning sessions.

It Can Work If You Want It To

To get to the point where the union vs. management situation becomes a thing of the past requires a lot of effort on both sides.  It is critical that managers start making the union feel like a partner in the company, and for both sides to focus on what is best in the long run for the company as a whole.  The chance for success diminishes greatly, though, if one or both groups does not truly want to improve the relationship.  One act of distrust can quickly wipe out years of work to build the relationship.

With many years of concerted effort, however, it is possible to build up trust to the point where one company, instead of two sides, exists.  And when the company reaches this point, great things will start to happen.

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