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Labor-Management Relations: Return to Collaboration

Lately, the news has been riddled with stories about public unions and adversarial union and organizational leaders (called labor-management relationships). High-profile examples that you have likely seen include the Chicago teacher’s strike in September, the fall controversy over disbanding the Camden City Police Department to institute a county-wide police force and, most recently in December, Michigan passing a law to become the 24th state with a right-to-work law. In order to best serve public employees and citizens, public managers must recognize the benefits of developing collaborative labor-management relationships and actively work to foster them. The evidence points to the importance and benefit of fostering collaborative partnerships, which are summarized in four recommendations for promoting collaborative labor-management relationships.


Why Should We Collaborate?

When labor-management relationships are not built through collaboration, there is a risk of creating or perpetuating an adversarial environment, like in Camden. The city government, with support from the state, was able to circumvent union negotiations for police salary and benefits by disbanding the city force and creating a county wide force that is unable to unionize in the near-term. This has created tensions at the city, county, and state government level, and has created factions within Camden of citizens who do and do not support the decision. A city with one of the worst crime rates in America and a depressed economy is now also divided, in part, because of an adversarial labor-management relationship.

Robert M. Tobias outlined several compelling reasons why we should foster collaborative labor-management relationships in his 2010 chapter titled “Working with Employee Unions” that are iterated here:

  • Collaborative labor-management relationships lead to increased organizational effectiveness and efficiencies.
  • Unions and organizations have shared interests that can be satisfied only through collaborative efforts.
  • Collaboration leads to increased employee satisfaction, an empowered workforce, and better service delivery.
  • Cost-savings and cost-avoidances can be realized when unions and organizations collaborate.

Though these reasons are not necessarily givens, they provide a bedrock of rationale for forming collaborative labor-management relationships.


Recommendations for Promoting Collaboration

Recommendation 1: Invest in participative decision making (PDM) strategies.

Participative decision making is one proven way of building collaborative partnerships that focuses on shared interests, solutions for mutual gain, and shared problem-solving between unions and organization. Unions and organizations often have similar goals, but are unable to focus on those shared goals because of perceived differences in how to achieve them. PDM would engage union and organization leaders in open discussions and decision making across topics like fiscal management, employee satisfaction, and improving service delivery. PDM is most likely to be successful when both parties are able to engage in conversations before major issues arise.

It is important to acknowledge that collaboration and PDM could require a shift in culture. In 1994, Kearney and Hays wrote in an article titled “Labor-Management Relations and Participative Decision Making: Toward a New Paradigm” that “the change in culture demanded by PDM may seem overwhelming at first, but a wide assortment of trust-building, cooperation-inducing interventions are proven and readily available.” This statement is important for acknowledging that: 1) changing culture can be daunting and time intensive 2) there are proven methods for building collaboration – public administrators do not need to invent anything new. Despite the fact that we know what works and often claim that methods are intuitive, we repeatedly ignore them. When issues are complex, stakes are high, and emotions are heightened, we forget how to collaborate because protecting our interests takes precedence. It takes a skilled and well-trained leader to artfully navigate PDM in the best of circumstances, which means that training leaders is especially important when circumstances are not ideal.

Recommendation 2: Use the expertise available in an organization’s Human Resource department.

Traditionally, HR managers have been exiled from labor-management relationships. Both unions and organizations have viewed HR managers as a barrier, but for different reasons. Union leaders often think that HR managers have allegiance to organization managers and are not invested in solving problems for the employees. Organizational leaders view HR managers as interpreters of the law, rather than thought partners. This is a disheartening realization because HR managers are likely to be the employees with the best skillset for negotiating tough challenges among groups with perceived differences, fostering collaboration, and teaching leaders how to be collaborative and engage in PDM. Utilizing HR managers’ expertise and seeing them as facilitators in developing collaborative labor-management relationships could make implementing these recommendations easier.

Recommendation 3: Public administrators in academia should focus on researching labor-management relationships.

The academic research on labor-management relationships is neither comprehensive nor current. Researchers from this decade, like Norma Riccucci, indicate that public sector research lags behind its private sector counterparts and that it has primarily been conducted by practitioners, union officials, or non-public administration academics. This is not to say that those groups do not offer valuable insights, but they may lack the time and resources to conduct thorough research with generalizable results or, for those not entrenched in public administration, may lack the necessary background to fully understand the complex pieces of public sector labor-management relationships. Norma Riccucci suggests in her 2011 article titled “Public Sector Labor Relations Scholarship: Is There a ‘There,’ There?” that by focusing on research in public administration academia, stronger theories and models may emerge to better serve practitioners.

Recommendation 4: Invest in and foster good leaders.

This is the single most important recommendation offered here. Conflict management theory, collaboration theory, and existing studies on conflict-management relationships point to the same thing – good leaders are inherently collaborative. Public administrators may not be able to choose union leadership, but we sometimes do get to choose the people that partner with union leadership.

Tobias points out that during the Clinton Administration, union leaders and management “developed the courage to change individually.” In other words, the leaders chose to be collaborative rather than were told to be collaborative. Evidence from the Clinton Administration shows that labor-management relationships were repaired and real cost-savings and cost-avoidances were realized as a result of the collaborations. We should actively seek out individuals that exemplify characteristics of collaboration and PDM. Once we identify who those leaders are, we should continually develop training to help strengthen their tools for collaboration. Once a leader demonstrates his or her willingness to collaborate, build trust, and have open discussions with union leaders, the adversarial cycle is broken and a new pathway toward strong and collaborative partnerships opens.

This article outlines compelling reasons for developing collaborative labor-management relationships and offers clear recommendations for moving toward collaboration. There are deep challenges to address – both cultural and historical – however, overcoming them is not insurmountable. The recommendations outlined are not the only solutions nor are they necessarily the most politically feasible, but they do present options for a path toward collaborative labor-management relationships. In the coming years, we, as public managers, will be faced with difficult decisions about how to best work with union leaders. When faced with those decisions, choose collaboration.


Author: Heather Eastlund is a master’s student in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. She is also a full-time employee of the university in the KU Office of the Provost. E-mail: [email protected]


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