Cleaning Up Our Act: One Hand Washes the Other

I always knew Labor Unions were a good thing. It was something I accepted without need for research or external justification. My parents were both Union members and I just assumed, growing up, that most working class people either belonged to a Union of some kind or another, or were getting less pay and benefits.

When I married and we started our family, I began a career working in the aerospace sector and landed a job at Rockwell Space Division as a technician in the Palmdale Calibration Lab. As an hourly employee, I was required to join the Union.

As I settled into my new job and got to know the people I worked with, I noticed there was an undercurrent of anti-Union sentiment. Anecdotal, common knowledge characterizations about how Unions take your money, but don’t do anything for you, were promoted by managers, supervisors and salaried staff. Union workers were seen as unproductive, second rate workers, who had to be monitored constantly, to get a day’s work out of them. This ridiculous opinion created barriers between hourly employees and the salaried staff that fostered resentment and was the foundation for a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In a few years, I worked myself into a Supervisor job. I inherited a group comprised of 36 women and 1 man, all Union employees. They were responsible for the status of all the manufacturing work at the Palmdale Space Shuttle assemble facility, a job that was difficult under the best of circumstances, but rendered impossible due to the lack of management support and infighting between almost everyone on the team. In short, I inherited a mess. I was also singularly ill-equipped to deal with a team of women, having spent my entire life working with men. But, my learning how to work with women is the topic of another conversation. We were in it together and I relied on them to get the job done and let me know what I could do to help them out.

It didn’t take long to isolate one of the problems. Most of the women were moms, with young children at home or in elementary school. They all relied on sitters or relatives to watch the kids while they were at work and get the older ones off to school in the morning. Since we started work promptly at 6:30 in the morning, clocking in late resulted in ½ point for being tardy. The points stayed on the books for several months before they expired and anyone with 5 unexpired points was terminated. This rule hit all women with young children, but was particularly tough on the single mothers, who had no husband as a backup if their sitter or relative showed up late. There were half a dozen single mothers in our group, and they all were on the verge of being fired. They were all hard workers and they were all cynical about how they were treated. The points, by the way, affected their pay increases and promotions as well. The deck was stacked against them.

Respecting our commitment to the company agenda and rules was, of course, only half of what we had to do. We had an obligation to our employees, who we relied on to get the job done, and that part of the bargain wasn’t reflected in the company’s policies or its contract with the Union. An environment for success is a 2 way street that accommodates objectives in both directions. The work we did was complex, demanding, tedious and high volume. Everything had to be completed every day and documented in a massive database, so engineers and technicians coming to work in the morning had accurate reports available to plan their day. Terminating a skilled worker in our group would have set us back weeks and impacted those who relied on the reports we maintained.

When I got everyone together and asked what they felt were the barriers to getting the job done and make their jobs easier to do, the number one issue was having to deal with being late. It caused them to constantly be on edge, rely on sitters to arrive at their homes on time, spend their vacation days to avoid being late, exhaust their sick days and come to work with colds. It was, as I was finding out, a sinister problem that effected the entire group. But, as nasty as the problem was, there was a relatively simple way to fix it.

Rockwell, as the result of losing a government law suit for mischarging labor to cost plus contracts, while under billing fixed cost contracts, was required to implement an automated timekeeping system. I was on the design and oversight committee, who defined the system requirements and monitored its implementation. It had, among other features, one that let supervisors enter the work schedules for each individual and edit them up to 15 minutes before start time. So, I met with our team and told them to call me, 15 minutes before their start time if they were going to be late. I would adjust their start and stop time, so they wouldn’t be late and they could still get an 8 hour day in, without getting points. They all agreed instantly and over the next 2 years no one in our group was fired, everyone had worked off all their points, they were able to take real vacations and stay home when they were sick.

The new agreement worked like a magic elixir. A weight had been lifted off of everyone’s shoulders, I wasn’t having to meet with anyone to counsel them and the entire mood in the work place changed. The bickering was replaced with conversations about how the kids were doing, folks with trees brought bags of apples and peaches in to share, the productivity was off the scale, if a late in the day issue popped up, those who could volunteered to stay over and handle it. Without exaggerating, I can say, there was a transformation on a scale that was inspirational. Cynicism was replaced with hope, new friendships evolved and a personal pride in what we did manifested itself.

Then came Rockwell’s reaction. I received a phone call one day. The caller identified himself and asked “Do you know who I am?” He was the CFO of Rockwell International; the guy whose name was on our paychecks. It seems the company had been trying to fire a Union employee for more than 5 years. The process had gone through some form of court hearing, and just when they thought all of the documented evidence stacked up in their favor, the Union lawyer pulled out a list of timekeeping records for my group. It showed a history of my changing start times for Union employees, just before they were about to be late. The Union argued I was treating employees in my group differently than other Supervisors were. The Judge threw the case out.

I won’t repeat what the CFO told me, but it amounted to a threat to fire me, if I ever did that again and he hung up abruptly. To make a longer story shorter, I continued to adjust start times as needed, after having a meeting and extracting an oath of silence from the group, who had been singing my praises, to their fellow Union workers. We continued, as a team, to over perform, smug in the knowledge that we were doing the right thing. Conversely, shortsighted decisions by the Company, driven by an ideological hate that Unions are evil, continued to promote adversarial divisions and contentious inefficiencies in many other working groups.

It took no ideological soul searching to change the character of our group. Once we figured out the root cause of most of our problems, we were able to deal with it easily. The harder part was laying low about what we were doing and quietly going about our business without fanfare. While some supervisors complained about their hourly employees and threatened them reprimands and terminations, it was obvious to us they weren’t interested in figuring out what was really happening. They were caught up in the fairytale that Union workers are somehow inferior and need to be whipped into shape.

Punishment is seldom an effective solution and usually results in dismal, career ending turmoil for managers and workers caught up in acting out some fruitless fantasy. It is the antithesis of a mutually beneficial relationship.

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About jackdetate

Married, 2 children, retired, enjoying unstructured time: "And then he drank a dew From a convenient grass, And then hopped sidewise to the wall To let a beetle pass." ~ Emily Dickinson
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4 Responses to Cleaning Up Our Act: One Hand Washes the Other

  1. Kirk Shaw says:

    The Knights only permitted certain groups of individuals into their Order which promoted social division amongst the people around them. Bankers, speculators, lawyers, liquor dealers, gamblers, and teachers were all excluded from the union. These workers were known as the “non-producers” because their jobs did not entail physical labour. Factory workers and business men were known as the “producers” because their job constructed a physical product. The working force producers were welcomed into the Order. Women were also welcome to join the Knights, as well as black workers by the year 1883.

  2. The late 19th century and the 20th century brought substantial industrial growth. Many Americans left farms and small towns to work in factories, which were organized for mass production and characterized by steep hierarchy, a reliance on relatively unskilled labor, and low wages. In this environment, labor unions gradually developed clout. Eventually, they won substantial improvements in working conditions. They also changed American politics; often aligned with the Democratic Party, unions represented a key constituency for much of the social legislation enacted from the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the 1960s.

  3. The union, which had been granted a charter by AFSCME in 1964, had attempted a strike in 1966, but it failed, in large part because workers were unable to arouse the support of Memphis’s religious community or middle class. Conditions for black sanitation workers worsened when Henry Loeb became mayor in January 1968. Loeb refused to take dilapidated trucks out of service or pay overtime when men were forced to work late-night shifts. Sanitation workers earned wages so low that many were on welfare and hundreds relied on food stamps to feed their families.

  4. Eva Larsen says:

    Workers fought their often demeaning work conditions by uniting together into collective groups and unions. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), for example, was created in 1886 for skilled craftsmen under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1905, also included unskilled workers in its ranks. In this period of labor unrest, many members in these groups were politically radical, supporting anarchism, communism, and socialism as tools of change. Groups such as these would organize strikes and boycotts in order to get management to acquiesce to their demands. In their early years, however, these labor groups were rarely successful, as the capitalists often resorted to government support to enforce their policies on laborers. The Pullman Strike was one such instance where the government squelched a railway workers’ strike by attaching mail cars to all the trains and then invoking the law that made it illegal to impede the movement of mail.

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