In the beginning, business was simpler, according to my dad, Irving. He and my Uncle Morty started working out of my grandfather's gas station. Dad said he and Uncle Morty were responsible for everything. And they were good at what they did. Soon people began to notice and the business grew. A crossroads was reached when they couldn't keep up with all the work and they had to add employees.
In the early days of the company, the late 1930s to the mid-1940s, Dad had told me they had the upper hand due to the country's high unemployment from the Depression. This resulted in management abuses.
When the business continued to grow during the 1950s, the employees found the time had come to strike. They forced my dad and uncle to accept the union. Although horrified at the prospect of being unable to compete with the nonunion shops, they had no choice if they wanted to stay in business. The balance of power had clearly shifted to labor.
The union rightfully demanded and got from them payment for working overtime, sick days, vacations and other benefits. My dad and uncle were certain all these new expenses would sink the company.
Amazingly, they found they could compete with the nonunion shops. Their staff was happier. That meant they worked better and harder. Employees for the first time felt a vested interest in the company and wanted to stay around to enjoy the benefits of things like medical coverage and a well-funded retirement plan.
Through the 1960s and the 1970s, the shift of power continued to swing toward labor and now it was the union that used its leverage. I was involved in the company and saw the spiral of excessive pay demands, benefits and anti-productive work rules. It was beginning to affect the ability of the company to be profitable.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the country saw a sweeping "downsizing" movement in all businesses. The balance of power had shifted back to management. In some cases, it was a direct result of labor having pushed to hard and gone too far.
Once again some owners chose to abuse this shift of power by demanding givebacks and forcing massive layoffs without input from labor. It didn't take long before the labor market got tight again in the late 1990s and the employees who felt abused chose to leave.
Working TogetherWe instead chose during the late '80s and early '90s to work with employees to achieve a win-win situation that helped increase productivity while saving jobs. And when the labor market got tight in the late '90s, we were able to retain our staff because they felt they'd been treated fairly.
Why did they stay when they could have used this incredibly tight labor market to get better paying jobs elsewhere? I believe the loyalty came from our investment of time and money in their on-going training. They felt they had a career and not just a job.
The benefit package was a big help. But more than that, it was how we treated people, like family. We worried that they were taken care of in good times and bad. We looked forward to seeing them each day and we really meant it when we said, "Good morning."
And when we attended their family weddings, holiday celebrations and funerals, the second and third generations of the same family got to know us. When it came time to find employment, many choose to work for us.
What also makes a good workplace is the commitment to having clear communications with employees regarding what's expected of them and what they can expect from us. This is all spelled out in the manual. We also talk about what's being done to grow the company and ensure their future with us. Spending money on the business, the tools and the technology makes everyone's life easier.
Employees are "free agents" who I know could leave if I don't treat them right. And, they know I have choices, too, because I've told them I can always sell the business and go do something else. We mutually decide to work together.
When I first started to work full-time in the business in the mid-'70s, I thought the union was an obstacle to my hiring and firing unproductive and problematic workers. But, this wasn't the case. The union's cooperation during the creation and implementation of our company's operations manual showed me how much they welcomed the opportunity to participate in making policies and procedures that were fair to all.
Another way we minimize tension between labor and management is by working together on improving business systems rather than focusing on whom to blame.
Today, committees of both management and workers meet to resolve challenges in a mutually agreeable way. We write up any changes to policy and procedures and the operations manual gets revised. Then we make a plan for implementation that includes any necessary training.
People resist change even when they're unhappy with how things are. An extra effort is needed to explain why it's worth changing. What is in it for them? What are the good and bad consequences?
If communication is clear and an employee has a compliance issue, we proceed with disciplinary action. These days disciplinary action is better because of the manual and our union's support. There's a specific, progressive discipline that makes it easy to deal with employer-employee issues. This documented procedure is vital should a disgruntled employee initiate a wrongful termination action.
We even allow our staff to participate in enforcing many of the company standards. This has helped tone down the combative situation that existed when only management was responsible for disciplinary actions.
My shop steward, who is responsible for protecting the rights of his fellow union members, told me one day: "We don't fire anyone anymore; they fire themselves."