Area Economy

Right-to-work law means changes for unions, HR pros

December 29, 2012
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The new right-to-work legislation presents unions with a challenge to keep members as well as recruit new people to their ranks. I have worked on the management side of labor relations for many years. My experiences with unions have generally been positive; however, those times that were not so good made me think the union wore out its welcome. In my mind, unions could be born again if they are willing to consider dramatic changes in the way they view their mission and carry out the wishes of their members.

RTW legislation may not have seen the light of day in Michigan had the 20 percent (or less) of those in unions or sympathetic to unions not pursued a referendum to engrave in stone the right to collective bargaining in the state constitution. Gov. Rick Snyder told some union leaders that a vote on this issue was a bad idea and would only encourage RTW legislation. With the anti-union fervor sweeping the nation (e.g. Wisconsin), this was a very naïve and reckless thought process on the part of union disciples who pushed it. This was a case in which the unions should have let the sleeping dog lie and hope it didn’t wake up grumpy. They knew the legislature was tipped against them. And guess what happened? Whack!

Now what? This may be an opportunity to rethink the purpose and operation of unions. The loss of revenue from all those covered by a collective bargaining unit seems to be the biggest concern for unions, their philosophies aside. I am suggesting some dramatic changes that would change the very nature and thought processes embedded in unions.

First, hire a professional management team. That includes a CEO who has successfully run a for-profit or nonprofit organization, which may not have been a union organization. Forget about a labor lawyer or local union president who was from the membership. Find someone who can create a vision, set goals, revitalize the organization and effectively utilize the financial markets to build the organization. Let the members sit as a board of directors and let professional managers run the day-to-day affairs of the union.

Second, create a marketing strategy. Hire a membership director who is well-schooled in marketing and public relations. Forget about recruiting one of the members. Hire someone who has a proven track record in business marketing, just like Target, General Motors, or the pharmaceutical companies do. Don’t beat drums; create a desire for the service in a non-threatening way.

Third, change attitudes toward management. Managers are not hired to create hardships for workers. They want people who work every day and not create unnecessary distractions from the work to be done. Management is hired to run a business and seeks partners who can help them.

Fourth, get rid of overreaching restrictions on working conditions and focus on the right things. How can more flexibility be incorporated into the work processes? Hostess apparently had contract language that prohibited drivers from carrying Wonder Bread and Twinkies on the same truck. If safety is an issue, consider that the vast majority of workplace injuries are caused by employee error. Who does the work is not as important as doing the work correctly and on time.

Fifth, follow the four suggestions above and things like grievances over discipline, who gets what overtime, or who does what work and when will disappear. Disputes between management and labor will diminish when employees and management work together. Unions must emphasize to their members that it is the employer who pays the employees, not the union.

There are opportunities out there. Is there a role for unions in providing temporary workers like an employment agency? Can unions revitalize training programs so they are the go-to place to get qualified employees? Can unions play an active role in the Society of Human Resources or even the Chamber of Commerce? Can the union offer its services to members at a discounted price or to non-member employers at a higher price? Could an employer utilize member services without a collective bargaining agreement?

Some people from either a management or union perspective may view these ideas as heresy or counter to the union purpose. Consider that unions have been losing out for three decades to the point where their influence is only a fraction of what it was. There still may be a need for advocacy, but that does not mean fostering an adversarial relationship.

There may still be a chance for unions to succeed and find their place, but a change of heart is needed. We all want employees and employers to succeed so we can all share in the prosperity of capitalism.

Jim Kohmescher is a senior consultant with P3HR Consulting and Services in Grand Rapids.

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