Labor Day epilogue: partnering for success | Don Brunell

Employers and unions need to come together in order to be successful.

A few years ago on Labor Day, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee presented a compelling commentary on the need for employers and employees to set aside their differences and partner. That very same message should be heeded by our elected officials today.

Easier said than done, especially in a vitriolic and politically charged atmosphere punctuated by an absence of listening and a profusion of people shouting at one another.

Huckabee bashed those who detest unions and those who trash employers – and rightly so. Success today hinges on a balance between the “job creators” and the “job holders” based on mutual respect, fair treatment and job satisfaction. The same goes for Congress and the President.

If American companies are to thrive, both sides must pull together. Think of a rowing crew: Without a competitive scull – the employer – there would be no boat to row; and, without a talented well-trained crew – the employees – the scull would remain dockside.

When Alan Mulally became CEO of Ford Motor Company, he worked with the United Auto Workers (UAW) on an agreement that averted the carmaker’s demise, trading new product commitments from Ford for competitive labor contracts.

It was a high-stakes play that paid off in 2013 when healthy profits allowed Ford to pay all hourly factory workers a record profit-sharing $8,800 bonus. It was a win-win and Ford returned to prosperity without a government bailout.

Good political, labor and business leaders have the ability to bury the hatchet and find ways to work together.

For example, in 1978 a bitter strike closed the aging Crown Zellerbach pulp and paper mill in Camas for nine months. After the new contract was signed, the union teamed with management to persuade the legislature to reinstate critical tax incentives it had promised to the company as part of its $425 million upgrade of the mill. Without them that 140-year old mill, now owned by Georgia Pacific, would have completely closed 40 years ago. With that modernization, parts of the mill still produce paper.

The partnership between Crown Zellerbach and the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers was largely responsible for the project’s completion despite a time of double-digit interest rates, inflation and unemployment.

The relationship developed further to solve technical problems in the plant. In fact, 25 years ago when the state was debating ergonomics rules, regulators found that some of the most innovative equipment designed to prevent back injuries and muscle strains was developed at the Camas mill.

Unions and employers can co-exist. In fact, our family experienced a unique management-labor relationship from both sides.

We were raised in Montana in a union family and in a union town. Dad was a journeyman electrician and an officer in IBEW Local 623. Mom was a secretary in Butte’s public schools and a member of the support staff union. After high school, I joined the miner’s union which was required to work in the underground copper mines.

For more than 30 years, our family owned and operated the non-union Walkerville Garbage Service. Dad and an uncle collected the trash, Mom handled the bookkeeping, and my brothers, sister and I went door-to-door each month to collect the payments.

The most valuable lessons we learned growing up were the value of hard work, customer service and the difference between income and profit. To our surprise, there were months when the expenses exceeded the money we collected. Being in business doesn’t guarantee profitability.

There always will be differences in workplaces and political arenas, just as there are in families. However, as long as there is respect, appreciation and partnering, we will thrive.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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