My Two Cents: Management and Labor Need to Pull Together

October 26, 2009
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Butch Welsch

Do you remember, not too long ago, when the biggest complaint heard from contractors was their inability to get good people to perform all of the work they had sold? We certainly don’t hear much of that type of problem anymore. Right now there are plenty of people available if we could just get the jobs for them to install and/or service. But with every challenge comes an opportunity, and I suggest that this might be the very best time to make sure that your partnership with your employees is at the best level possible.

Everyone knows that times have been difficult and what better time than now to reconstruct the foundation that will allow you to grow your business when things do turn around? Whether you are a union contractor dealing with union leadership or a non-union company that deals directly with its employees, a true labor–management partnership will be the best way to move your business forward in the future.


Many of you may feel that there is no comparison between union and non-union contractors. We happen to be a union contractor that employs members of Local No. 36 Sheet Metal Workers here in the St. Louis area.

As we prepared to negotiate our contract, which expired Aug. 1 of this year, we did a considerable amount of research into the wages and fringes being paid by not only non-union contractors but by other trade unions as well. What we found was that the good, honest, successful non-union contractors are paying their top trained personnel as high of a wage, if not higher, than we are paying our union personnel.

These top non-union contractors also typically provide a decent level of benefits (health and welfare; 401(k), vacations, etc.) to their employees. This should not really come as a big surprise because during the long upward trend we experienced until a couple of years ago, non-union contractors that wanted to keep good personnel had to pay them competitive wages and fringes. Interestingly, the good non-union contractors complain as much about the low paying, low priced, non-union contractors as we union contractors do. The point is that the partnership that I feel needs to exist between labor and management is true regardless if there is union affiliation or not.

We have forged an excellent partnership in the St. Louis area because both labor and management have been empathetic to the needs and issues of the other side. As our new contract was negotiated, the entire idea of a labor-management partnership was at the forefront of the negotiations. It was not a “we win/you lose” situation. Our contract would only be successful if we both won from the results. To make this happen, the leaders of both sides, and especially the union leadership, must take a strong position in helping the membership understand there are two sides to the negotiations. We certainly had that in the person of David Zimmermann, the president and business manager of Local No. 36 who strongly emphasized to his people that the results of these negotiations had to be win-win.

We are no longer in the 40s and 50s - nor 80s and 90s - when management and labor were adversaries with a goal of beating up the other side. We are in times when we need to work with our employees to achieve goals that will be mutually beneficial for all of us. And in establishing our goals, we need to remember that our employees are in the best position to know the best ways to improve our operations. Therefore we must maintain open lines of communication between our employees and us.

Whether union or non-union, we need to be working with our labor team to be preparing for those times when we will again be seeking more employees. In the meantime, we as management need to do all we can to help preserve our relationship with our current workforce.

Publication date: 10/26/2009

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