Imagine this. The personnel manager calls a meeting with the union committee one day and makes the following announcement:
“Because of increased external and internal competition, we have to make some changes around here. Starting next week, we will begin to implement direct flow technology with elements of kaizan layered in. We’ll all work together on this so the self- directed teams will begin immediately to exercise their empowerment and direct the reorganization.”
The union committee says “What?”
To which the boss replies, “We don’t know the details of what this means, it’s up to the employees, but to help facilitate the process we have hired the consulting firm of Speedum & Up. They will facilitate the entire process.”
What does the union do when the employer approaches the union with a management scheme like this or like any of the others that the UE Steward has outlined in the last two issues?
- Stop, think, analyze;
- Assert the union’s rights as collective bargaining agent;
- Ask questions, and demand answers;
- Analyze and figure out what the employer really wants;
- Discuss problem with the union members, stewards, national union representatives;
- Educate the union members, stewards if necessary;
- Decide what the union wants, and make a plan;
- Negotiate with the employer and get an agreement in writing.
If the employer bypasses the union and begins to implement a new program, then the union must immediately go to step two and assert the union’s rights as the sole and exclusive collective bargaining agent.
The employer should not be meeting directly with employees or with selected groups of employees if they are discussing anything that could impact wages, hours, and conditions of employment. They must first meet with the union committee. Be assertive about this. Demand that the meetings cease until they meet with the union. Do not agree that they will allow the union to sit in on the meetings as they happen. If the employer goes ahead and starts holding the meetings, then file a grievance (file it as a violation of the Recognition Clause/refusal to recognize the union) and attend the meetings so the union knows what is going on.
Now for some details on the steps listed above.
1. Stop, think, analyze
When the employer approaches the union about implementing a new program, the union committee must insist upon having time to sit down and think about what the employer has proposed. Employers will often try to rush the union into making a decision, thus hoping to get the union involved before it knows what is going on. One ploy of employers is to say they really don’t know what they want, they just want to try something different. Employers know exactly what they want, count on that. In contract negotiations the union usually takes a caucus after the employer makes a proposal, to discuss among the committee what the proposal really means. This is no different.
2. Assert the union’s rights as collective bargaining agent
Make sure the employer understands that no changes will be made to existing conditions without the union’s approval. Depending on past practice and specific contract language, the employer might be able to make some changes, but major changes in production methods usually run into contractual language. This gives the union power. If you’re unsure about the rights the union has, contact the UE Field Organizer assigned to your Local.
3. Ask questions, and demand answers
Get as much information as you can in writing. Often times they will have a manual that has been prepared for them by some consulting company. Demand a copy. These manuals are often very frank in stating what the employer should get out of the program. It might describe exactly how they will speed-up production, eliminate employees, or bust the union. Ask as many questions as you can and follow-up in writing. Make the employer reveal their intentions. Ask for names of other employers that have implemented this program.
The employer has answers, don’t let them kid you. If you think the program could cause changes in the production flow, ask to see the plans for redesigning the work flow. If the employer insists that they have no preconceived plans, that they don’t know what they want, tell them to come back to us when they do know what they want. Does the employer want better quality, faster production, cheaper production, better delivery of services? If they tell us what they want perhaps we can do something, BUT we will want guarantees in return. NO layoffs, no job cuts, no sub-contracting, no anti-union campaigns, higher pay, more training, job security, etc.
4. Analyze and figure out what the employer really wants
Once the union has gathered as much information as possible it is time to sit down and analyze what the employer wants. There are many factors to take into account.
If the employer has a history of anti-union behavior, then it is reasonable to be suspicious of any proposal they make. Do they really have a problem with quality that they want to fix, or is this just an excuse to start quality circles to divide the union members?
Make a list of what is good about the program (if anything) and what union members should be concerned about.
For example. The employer proposes a “pay for knowledge” program, where the more jobs a worker learns the more pay he/she receives. To many workers this sounds good. Extra pay is always welcome and finally the employer is willing to provide on-the-job-training.
The union lists the problems. What if a senior employee doesn’t want to learn extra jobs? Who gets laid off, a less senior employee with multiple skills or the senior employee with only one skill? Who gets the extra training? Does it go by seniority? Does everyone get extra training if they want it and get extra pay all the time? Does the employer really just want to offer this to his pets? With many multi-skilled workers who can be transferred to many jobs, will this cause permanent layoffs?
5. Discuss problem with the union members, stewards, national union representatives
The national union can provide many resources to help the local analyze the problem and come up with a plan of action. There are workshops available on cell manufacturing, Just in Time and other programs. It is important to get input from the union stewards and members as to what they think is going on. The committee must know if the supervisors are out working the floor, making promises to the membership. The strength of the union comes from its unity and organization. If members, officers and stewards are running in different directions, then we lose.
6. Educate the union members, stewards if necessary
Often times the employer’s plan may sound good to the membership. Vague promises of more money or job security get inflated when they are run through the rumor mill. The union may have to conduct an educational campaign as to the real nature of the employer’s proposal. Meetings, leaflets and lots of work by the stewards may be necessary to keep the membership united and on the right track.
7. Decide what the union wants, and make a plan.
If the union decides that the best approach is to just say “no,” then that is the plan. The union will have to be prepared for the employer not taking “no” for an answer. This can work if the membership is unified and understands what the employer is really up to. Part of any plan, the most important part, will be to figure out ways that the membership can express its opinion. Stickers, buttons, rallies are very important.
Often times we need a more complicated plan. The employer might have contractual language that will allow them to implement their plan. If that is the case then the union needs to figure out what to do to safeguard the members. The plan must include how the members will be involved in the company program.
In one UE shop the employer wanted department teams to make plans for improving production. The union’s demands were as follows:
- The union membership elected team members and could recall an elected team member.
- The union officers and department steward could attend every meeting.
- Union members could meet in caucus without management or a consultant present.
- The teams could not implement any changes in the department without a membership vote.
- No changes could lead to any layoffs.
- Any changes that affected the contract had to be negotiated by the union committee and voted upon by the membership.
What the employer really wanted was speed-up and layoffs and thus was stymied by the union’s conditions on participation. The “teams” soon disappeared.
Be bold in making plans. Make a list of every demand that will safeguard the members. Don’t be bashful about adding them to the list.
Make additional demands. If the employer wants the union’s help on setting up a cell then perhaps the employer should also be willing to talk about improving the pension. Employers don’t wait until contract negotiations to make demands, neither should the union. The union can demand that the employer invest in new equipment and machinery or hire more employees.
8. Negotiate with the employer and get an agreement in writing.
Oral promises aren’t worth much. If the employer’s intentions are “honorable,” then they shouldn’t be afraid to put commitments in writing. A no-layoff pledge isn’t worth anything if it was just a vague promise. The agreements should come before the program starts. Once the program has started and members are involved it will be hard to make the employer sit down and negotiate.
- The above article is used with permission and grateful appreciation from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE)