Hard Times and Second Thoughts
July 1, 1991 -
Hard economic times have a way of demonstrating to labour and management that both stand to lose a great deal if they continue to look at each other as enemies across the bargaining table. Some are discovering that cooperation is essential for the survival and prosperity of a business.
Even tough-talking leaders and members of the United Steelworkers of America must surely have some second thoughts about last summer's lengthy strike against the now virtually bankrupt Algoma Steel Corporation in Sault Ste. Marie. Algoma is now faced with the necessity of a drastic restructuring and downsizing, if not a complete shutdown. The strike alone is not responsible for this company's desperate financial condition, but it certainly made a bad situation much worse.
The leadership of unions such as the United Steelworkers of America and the Canadian Auto Workers continues to preach an us-versus-them and a politics-centred view of life. In contrast to this official party-line, some individual unions are showing a great deal more good sense by experimenting with innovative and promising forms of workplace reorganization. These constructive instances of labour relations are invariably built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect between workers and management. They deserve to be widely publicized as encouraging examples of wholesome alternatives to the old dog-eat-dog way of labour-management relations.
Cooperation Works at Stelco Steel
Stelco Steel (a division of Stelco Inc. of Toronto), now nearing completion of a $200 million Z-line plant in Hamilton, is providing a striking example of a better approach to labour relations. A vital element in the successful operation of the new plant is a determined effort on the part of management and the (unionized) workforce to develop a new style of managing and working together. As in other similar cases, Stelco Steel turned to a Japanese partner (Mitsubishi) to learn about the best way of producing steel and managing the workplace. Consequently, there is a marked difference between the old, authoritarian and the new, cooperative management style.
The new approach at Stelco Steel is based on an agreement with Local 1005 of the United Steelworkers of America that changes would have to be introduced from the ground up. To assist in this, Stelco sent ten of its production workers to Japan to see for themselves how the Japanese operate a similar plant. One member of the delegation was much influenced by what he observed. He reported that he noticed quite a different attitude in Japan, where people take pride in what they are doing and where management respects the people whom they manage, and vice versa. On returning, he stated: "I came back with a very different feeling about the steel company. I realized it's out to make money, and the men have a stake at making sure it does, so we get paid and have a job for the future." (Marian Stinson, "Stelco Galvanizes a New Order," The Globe and Mail, June 3, 1991, P.B2)
All members of the operating crews have the same job description and they learn a variety of tasks required to operate the mill. The workers are responsible for their own jobs and for making up their own schedules. For example, once the plant is in operation, some of the operating crew members will visit the plants of their customers, such as auto and stamping plants, in order to simplify customer relations and improve service.
What is taking place here is a sharing of responsibility, giving the people directly involved in production an opportunity to assume responsibility for their own work. The benefits of such changes are clearly to the advantage of everyone involved, not in the least because they provide for a much more healthy, open, and rewarding work environment.
Bombardier Challenges its Employees
Another company that has worked hard at improving its performance by revising its labour-management relations is the Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., a major producer of transportation equipment.
Bombardier president Raymond Royer, writing in Business Quarterly (Spring, 1991), explains that sharp competition in the early 1980s forced the company to take a hard look at the way it had been operating. Management began to realize that the company would not survive unless it adopted major changes in the way it managed its operation.
Bombardier's management became convinced that the crucial requirement for success was the involvement and interest of all its employees. This company, too, looked to Japan for new ideas. After it concluded an agreement with Kawasaki, one of the world's largest manufacturers of rail transportation equipment, Bombardier arranged for its employees to visit Kawasaki's plants. During a six-month period, no fewer than 70 employees, including engineers, technicians, supervisors, and union representatives, visited Japan.
These visits were followed by a number of all-employee meetings where hard questions about the company's operation in an increasingly competitive world were discussed. They helped to focus the attention on the need to produce top quality products, demanding the best efforts of the entire workforce.
Sometimes managements are only interested in gadgets and quick-fix solutions to achieve greater productivity without any fundamental change in management style and without any regard for the true interests of the workers. But it appears that Bombardier management had a broader vision. It paid attention to the interests and concerns of its employees by, for example, assisting them in their career development through a variety of training programs. What Bombardier was particularly looking for was certain basic qualities and values such as creativity, honesty and integrity, judgement, perseverance, respect for others, and entrepreneurship. As Royer summarizes:
The world has changed....We can no longer afford to manage a corporation by using out-of-date theories and practices, and by telling people what to do. We must involve all our people in a collective effort to meet customers' demands better than anybody else, we must manage with foresight and prepare ourselves for what is coming down the path and for what we think the future will hold. In other words, we must be flexible and more innovative than world competition. It is a matter of survival. (p.32)
A Step Toward Labour Peace in Quebec
The United Steelworkers of America and the (Quebec) Confederation of National Trade Unions have agreed to waive the right to strike for the next six years at the Atlas Stainless Steels plant in Tracy, Quebec. This rather unusual agreement is said to have been the decisive factor in favour of a new half-billion-dollar investment by South Korean manufacturing group Sammi Corp.
The six-year strike waiver agreement contrasts sharply with the strike history of other Steelworkers' locals. A no-strike agreement by itself is not sufficient to ensure healthy labour relations. But if used wisely, it could serve as an opportunity to replace confrontation in the workplace with mutual respect and trust, to the benefit of everyone involved.
May these instances of good sense and cooperation in the workplace grow into a habit right across this now very divided and fragile nation.