Archived Story

Labor, management need each other

Published 10:24am Monday, September 3, 2012

Listening to a group of corporate executives, I heard loud complaints that “you can’t get workers like we used to.” Everyone agreed and attributed problems of modern business to a lack of loyalty in the workforce. Earlier the same week, I listened in on an equally loud conversation among workers, and they, too, were agreed. But their agreement is that “companies aren’t what they used to be” and “Companies used to take care of their employees.”

Rather than these disparate assessments contradicting the other, they complement each other to form broad perspective on current labor/management relations as well as the economic well being of our country. Employers are currently tending to place first and ultimate value on the financial success of the corporate body (especially management and stockholders) at the same time employees are tending so to place values on the immediate gain of individual employees. Employers are relatively indifferent to the welfare of employees, and employees care little about the success of their firms as long as they get their pay and benefits.

I am aware of wonderful exceptions to this, but this is another instance in which the exception proves the rule. What the managers to whom I listened charge is a valid complaint, as is that of the employees. The two disturbing factors are that managers are managing businesses rather than leading people, and workers are not working.

I doubt if the science of labor economics could ever pin-point where, when, or how it all started, and my suspicion is that early changes on either side provoked a corresponding reaction on the other. This grew into a tendency, and the tendency developed into a trend. They have now become almost givens.

Employees have worked for the same firm for 20 or 30 years, and are then laid off at an unemployable age. Employees jump from one job to another for a 5-cent raise or because the foreman told them to get to work.

Personnel Department and Employment Office have been renamed Human Resources. This sounds as if management has gained a new concept of employees as real persons and treat them with respect and dignity. It often means, however, that employees are as exploitable as are mineral resources consumed in manufacturing. They do not employ workers, but consume them and spit them out.

Labor Unions organized to give a competent and effective voice to workers. Their conception and creation was absolutely necessary in face of tyrannical owners. It often means, however, that union management (one would think this a contradiction of terms) forget about their members and represent only themselves. Their success is political and not economic, and they get paid for what they do rather than what they accomplish.

There is corporate greed, indeed, but there is also union greed. They differ in degree but accord in attitude.

When the auto manufacturer that employed my father during the Depression had to cut back production, it and the workers (all non-union then) agreed they would lay off no one but that all workers would come in only two or three days a week. Even with business down, the company knew it needed workers. The workers needed work. This is to say, both knew they needed each other and they agreed upon and made the necessary adjustments for the welfare of everyone.

Too many companies act as if they can get along without people. Too many employees act as if they can still draw wages from an employer that went out of business.

Today, both in boardrooms and union halls, there is too much language that uses the third-person “they” when we need the first-person “we.” The correction is not to modify language for public relations advantage but to change attitude for labor relations success.

Companies cannot succeed without the loyalty of its workers, and workers cannot survive without the loyalty of their employers. Loyalty, that is, flows both up and down. The task of management is to manage, and the task of workers is to work.

This Labor Day is spent best thinking in terms of “we” and “ours.” Then let’s return to our work tomorrow and see what we can accomplish for us.

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