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MY COMPANY
By Kevin Kelly

9.23.99  
Labor Intensive
How outside consultants — and listening to the workers — helped keep a union at bay

Apr. 6 was the worst day of my professional life. From early morning till 3 a.m., the employee meetings dragged on, and each of the nine sessions left me more exhausted and discouraged than the one before. A lot hung on these gatherings: More than 75% of our workforce had signed cards to join the Graphics Communications International Union (GCIU). So my brother, my sister, and I, along with our labor-relations consultants, were meeting with small groups, hoping to open communication. Instead we got impassive, or indeed hostile, looks.

If the workers had voted that day, the union would have won. But they didn't -- in fact, they never voted, because the campaign we waged proved so effective that in early June the union withdrew and the election was canceled. Credit an aggressive blitz fashioned by two labor consultants we hired days after learning we'd be facing a union vote. They highlighted the union's weaknesses while reminding employees what a union victory would cost them. Many, for instance, didn't know their benefits would change. We also met around the clock with employees and listened a lot. Ultimately the strategy paid off, much to our relief. The GCIU had been promising our workers, whose average wage of $13 an hour is among the highest in the industry, raises of more than 30%. Such an increase would have broken our family-owned printing business, so we feared protracted and divisive negotiations, with the strong possibility of a strike.

Pleased as I was to win, I had fallen into moods bordering on depression during the campaign, pondering how I had allowed us to get into this mess. After all, our employees had thrown out a union three years ago in a landslide vote. In the following years, I realized, I had lost touch with our workforce. Policies were applied arbitrarily, raises weren't done in a timely manner, and outsiders grabbed plum jobs insiders wanted. Our Spanish-speaking employees did not feel the company made an effort to communicate with them.

Our consultants, Ed Villanueva and Carlos Rojas, of Labor Relations Services in Newport Beach, Calif., didn't let us dwell on these negatives. Within a day of arriving, they launched an intensive education campaign. They walked our employees through the GCIU's financial statements and dissected the union's bylaws and bevy of regulations. Employees learned about its finances, and where the union put its money. "This isn't the union I was sold," one employee told me. The meetings, usually segmented by language, went on for six weeks. One week we tackled the risks associated with collective bargaining and strikes -- real risks, given the promises the GCIU was making. In another series of meetings, we emphasized the benefits employees received from the company -- health, dental, pension, profit-sharing, and a 401(k) -- and detailed how much they cost. Gradually, the workforce turned around. It helped, I am sure, that Ed and Carlos spoke Spanish. I also spent a day a week until well after midnight on the factory floor, talking with our employees. Slowly they opened up, and I learned what to them was the union's chief appeal. "We felt it was the only way you might see the company had problems," said one employee.

The union postponed the election when it filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging we had threatened to close if we lost. Then, without fanfare, in early June the charge was withdrawn, and the union abandoned the field. What did I get out of all this? Months of exhaustion and a big consulting bill. But I have to admit, without the union drive we might have continued to alienate employees, and we might have lost key people. So we've begun to change our policies and communication practices. We're promoting from within, holding bilingual plant meetings, and publicizing the changes. If we don't carry out these policies, I suspect we won't have heard the last of this union. If we do change, though, I hope we'll become the kind of company I am proud to run, one where managers and workers are truly partners.


This article was originally published in the September 13, 1999 print edition of Business Week's frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy.

Kevin Kelly, a Business Week journalist from 1987 to 1996, left the magazine to work at Emerald Packaging, Inc., a manufacturing company his father had founded over three decades ago. At Emerald Packaging, his focus has been human resources and operations. He has shared his experiences in Business Week frontier since September 1996.

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