This last week the change to the Fall season occurred in the northern hemisphere. Luckily for many of us, it’s a fairly weak change as we continue to experience great weather. But the change to Fall isn’t the only change occurring lately.
On September 15th, United Auto Workers announced a nation-wide strike against General Motors, the first since 2007. Many have said this is a major change for UAW. But, in addition to UAW calling a strike, another large union, Service Employees International, or SEIU, also scheduled a strike. Service Employees International (SEIU) and Kaiser Permanente have been working for over a year on contract negotiations. Both of these labor-management groups have had very positive relations in the past. GM and UAW worked together to develop a different way of working together when the Saturn line was introduced. Kaiser Permanente and SEIU have had a model cooperative relationship for many years. So what does it mean when these groups appear to be at odds? Is it an end to labor-management cooperation?
Change might be coming but maybe not so fast. The number of strikes have been so low for so long that when a major strike does occur in this era it may appear like something is happening. During the decades of 1940s to 50s and 1960s to 1970s, there were over 3,000 in the U. S. but in 2018, that number was only 20.
Are we looking at the possibility of a lot more strikes? It’s hard to say. As we explained last week, a single issue can trigger problems. It may be the parties are having difficulty with just one specific issue. Negotiations can be tough! When it comes to issues that impact our basic needs such as economic well-being, we all can identify with the sensitivity of that issue. Things that have to do with our paycheck and wanting to have a good life or even having a job in the future are issues that can be extremely difficult to work out. It is not uncommon for groups to do a cooperative, interest-based bargaining approach on all items except the financial items because they mean so much to people.
It could, though, be time for the pendulum to swing back. According to a report by the AFL-CIO, The Future of Work And Unions, it’s important the bargaining power of unions improve because such things like increased wages helps ALL of us not just for the union that’s negotiating for members. That bargaining power also helps communities and the overall economy as purchasing ability increases. It sounds like that could be one of the issues causing UAW to strike. GM has been closing or idling plants which creates a huge impact on workers and communities. There also have been reports the use of temporary workers has been a sticking point of the negotiations. It’s not just the increased use of them but UAW is trying to help the temporary workers increase their pay and benefits which also can add some value to a community.
On the other hand, when negotiations get to the point of a strike, that obviously is not good. We may not know what has necessitated a strike and we hope it will end with a good outcome, but it can also be a no-win situation for either side. Reputations are at stake. Incomes and revenue for employees and organizations suffer. In addition, relationships can be soured particularly if a strike occurs for a long period of time. A strike doesn’t just hurt the workers and the employers but local economies suffer, too. That’s why even in the most difficult times, which I think we can say is now for various reasons, you still need to have a cooperative process available as a tool. It’s not to say strikes should never happen because it may be the only other alternative but they need to be carefully weighed and not taken lightly.
I had a discussion not too long ago with someone about negotiating. The other person made a common point about traditional negotiations and that is it’s not good to appear to be weak. Some have criticized unions of that in recent years so that could be encouraging the strikes, too. However, that sign of strength can appear for both sides if they are willing to look at things differently and are willing to make the necessary changes. Instead of trying to use power or an approach that lets one side win but the other side lose, the interest-based bargaining approach can help both sides look strong and win.
The other thing that was said in the AFL-CIO report is collective bargaining helps people have a voice in the workplace and it demonstrates how a democratic process can work. When used correctly, the interest-based process can actually be a better way to show how a democratic process can work. Because it is so totally different than what people are accustomed to, it’s worth doing because it eliminates traditional behaviors that normally create division and leaves issues unresolved. It doesn’t have to be just for the workplace either!
Lately, we have been encouraged by the number of new groups that are interested in either starting a labor-management committee process or improving their existing committee process. Our labor co-chair has been encouraging unions to do so because so many issues can be resolved in the committee forum before becoming a grievance. It doesn’t mean the grievance process goes away but there’s a much better opportunity for improvement when people have a voice and are pro-active rather than reactive.
Within the last few days, Kaiser Permanente and SEIU reached a tentative agreement which calls off the strike for now. SEIU membership will soon be voting to accept or turn down the contract. It also was reported GM and UAW have agreed on a number of items and hopefully they, too, will have a tentative agreement and end the strike.
Are there changes taking place in labor relations? Maybe. We will have to wait and see but I hope as change occurs with leaders retiring and new leaders emerging, the new leaders will strive to work together not just at bargaining time but before and after as well so that the need for strikes, lock-outs and other traditional behaviors will not be needed.