Labor Day epilogue: Partnering for success | Don C. Brunell

Over the Labor Day weekend, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee gave a compelling commentary on the need for employers and employees to set aside their differences and partner.

Easier said than done, especially in today’s often vitriolic and politically charged atmosphere.

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.

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 last year when healthy profits allowed Ford to pay all the 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 leaders bury the hatchet and find ways to work together. As a team they do amazing things.

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 tax incentives it had promised to the company as part of its $425 million upgrade of the mill.

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

The relationship developed further when CZ formed management-worker teams that solved technical problems in the plant. In fact, 15 years ago when the state was debating ergonomics rules, state regulators found that some of the most innovative equipment designed to prevent back injuries and muscle strains was developed at the Camas mill.

Many family-owned businesses have a culture of harmony in the workplace. Their employees take pride in their work and their work is appreciated and rewarded by their employers.

Nelson Irrigation in Walla Walla is an innovative and forward thinking family business that is successfully competing worldwide. Company founder Bart Nelson is continually on the factory floor, in the development labs and working with customers. He knows everybody working there and they know and trust him and his family.

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

We were raised in Montana in a union family and in a union town. Dad was an officer in IBEW Local 623 and mom was in the union representing the support staff in Butte’s public schools. After high school, I joined the miner’s union while working in the underground copper mines.

We also ran a business. For more than 30 years, our family owned the Walkerville Garbage Service. Dad and an uncle collected the trash for our 500 customers, mom handled the bookkeeping and my brothers, sister and I went door-to-door each month to collect the payments.

The most valuable lesson we kids learned from this experience was the difference between income and profit. To our surprise, there were months when the expenses exceeded the money we collected.

There always will be differences in the workplace, just as there are in families. As long as there is respect, appreciation and partnering, America’s job creators and job holders can beat the competition anywhere on the globe

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently 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.