Labor News Digest newsletter

A newsletter from JALMC

From the January, 1998 issue of
Labor News Digest

It's Never About the Money

By John Whiteside and Sandra Egli

"It's never about the money." So says an experienced labor-relations director of one of America's most highly respected manufacturing companies. He is referring to the root causes of workforce-management difficulties.

Poor workforce-management relations, whether in union situations or not, cost everyone. The results show up in poor quality, low productivity, sabotage, grievances, bad public image, customer alienation, and poor quality of work life. Allowed to go to extremes, poor management-workforce relations can result in strikes and violence.

The debate about management versus unions (or management versus the workforce in general) assumes at its core that the issues are economic. That is why the labor-relations director's remark is so striking. What if this core assumption is wrong? If so, we would have to rethink our entire approach to labor relations, compensation, mediation, and dispute resolution. If disputes aren't about money, what are they about? Our work in labor relations leads us to assert the core issue is R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

For example, in many of the manufacturing plants where we work, union wages and the extensive use of overtime mean that many of the wage people actually earn more money than the plant management, in dollars per year. These wage people freely admit that their concerns and grievances are not about money.

What are they upset about? It is common, in these plants, to find wage earners with 20 or 30 years of experience at operating complex and dangerous manufacturing equipment. Yet, the spirit of empowerment--listening, acknowledging, trusting expertise--is all too often missing in day-to-day management practice, even among managers with the best of intentions.

As an illustration, one plant manager of our acquaintance was adamant about the need to dramatically improve the respect shown by the supervisors for the line employees. All of his admonishments and lectures to the supervisors were to no avail. In a moment of insight he recalled that the supervisors often complained bitterly about the lack of respect they themselves received from their managers. This manager realized that he and his department heads must first demonstrate respect toward the supervisors before respect would be passed on to the line employees.

In another plant the manager says and acts, over and over in the following way. "I'm no more important than anyone else in this plant. We are all here to do a job together and work as a team." With this attitude, this manager has improved his plant's productivity to among the best in the industry.

Why is R-E-S-P-E-C-T such a hard lesson for all of us? In one big city the school bus drivers (along with four other unions) were threatening to go on strike. Speaking with them, the difficulties of their work and their level of commitment became apparent. One driver had a revolver drawn against her by a motorist angry at having to stop. Another told of the drivers taking up collections to buy needy children mittens and coats for the winter. Would you do this for $10 an hour, with a morning and afternoon shift that prevents you from taking a full-time job? In their words, "We don't do this job for the money. We do it for the kids. In some cases we're the only family they have. All we want is a little respect." Their demand? That top school administrators actually ride the bus a couple of times a year, to see what it is like. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Cost? Negligible. Benefit? No strike.

A friend of ours handles organizational development for a major hospital system. As elsewhere, managed care and profit-driven medicine have taken their toll through an increased workload, which allows less time for the human-to-human aspects of healing. Consequently, the nurses are organizing. Our contact reports the following conversation with a top hospital administrator, just before a union avoidance meeting. In his words:

Yesterday, I lunched with one of our executives who was on the way to a directors' meeting that he described as [another in our series of anti-union meetings]. I poked around the VP's thoughts awhile and I asked, So, you understand that you're judging unionization activity as wrong? [yes]. So, you understand that by opposing a union you give it strength? [not completely, but for the most part, yes]. So, you understand that by opposing a union you are outraging your people who are searching for a way to be heard? [yes]. So you understand that the only reason you ever get a union is when people feel unheard? [yes]. So, you understand that you are anti-union? [oh yes]. Is 'no union' what you truly want? [no, I don't think so]. Then what is it that you truly want? [I want a relationship with my people]. Can you get a relationship with your people by refusing to listen to them about how they wish to be heard whether this is through a union or not through a union? [no]. Good, you must decide whether you are anti-union or pro-relationship. [now I've got it]. The VP went on to have what he later characterized for me as a breakthrough meeting with the director team.

The wise hospital VP got the message, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This friend is something of a radical. He says, "Union negotiations are a time for more love, not less."

If R-E-S-P-E-C-T for employees goes a long way, consider what it does for customers. John had an interesting conversation with a Fidelity executive. When he mentioned the idea that "it's never about the money," she objected. "At Fidelity it's all about the money. Making money is the company's mission. Everyone understands that. That's why we do so well." "OK," he said (while the thought crossed his mind to bail out of Fidelity ASAP), "but could there be something like respect for other people's money underlying that? As a Fidelity customer, John does business with them because he believes in their integrity in handling his money. "Oh yes," she replied, "Of all the places I've worked, Fidelity people have the highest morality and integrity I've seen in a company." John decided to leave his money there.

Practice R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The profits will follow.

John Whiteside and Sandra Egli specialize in labor relations interventions and can be reached at Industrial Revolutions Inc., 234 North Rd., Fremont, NH 03044; (603) 679-5443; or at Industrial Revolutions, 1109 E. Braeburn Dr., Phoenix, AZ 85022; (602) 942-1350;