Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Employee Engagement: Are Unions Really a Barrier?

Ask most people who work in manufacturing about how they feel about unions, and you’ll get mostly negative responses.

Unions have rules that are counterproductive. They protect poor or lazy employers. 
They’ll strike at the drop of a hat.  They result in higher labor rates.  Union people are antagonistic.

In my career, I‘ve worked in both unionized and non-unionized plants and had equal success in both. 

When in moved from CPG into B2B, I moved from one company with a history of labor woes to another. At my previous company, the plant employees had struck about a month after I’d joined.  At my new employer, I attended my first communications meeting in the first month.  The union representatives were extremely outspoken and confrontational with my boss, the general manager.  At my previous company, the plant was in a different city from our where our offices were located, so I was relatively insulated from the conflict during the strike there.  This time, I was seeing the result of years of poor labor relations first hand.  It was very unsettling.

Our management team overcame the labor relations issues at this company by devoting a portion of our time to being on the plant floor and to becoming approachable so the employees felt comfortable coming to us with questions or issues.

My next employer also was a unionized plant, though I never really noticed the presence or influence of the union when I was on the plant floor.

My sales team and I had been working on developing a new customer in the US. We had provided them sample material.  They never ran it.  I took their sales manager out on sales calls to see if we could jointly develop a new application for the customer’s product.  The project didn’t move forward, but at least we were able to communicate better, though they still had not found time to run our sample material.

It turned out the customer was planning to exhibit at a major industry trade show (as was my company) and I contacted the sales manager to suggest to him it might be a good idea to hand out some samples of their product at the show, and that we’d be happy to supply the material.  I’ll never forget his response.

“Ron, we have four other suppliers for our films and we still haven’t gotten around to qualifying the samples you provided.  However, none of those other suppliers offered to supply film for the samples we wanted to run.  Consider this your first order with us. And please bill us we couldn’t have you provide the film at your expense.”

We wanted to make a really good impression on this customer and provide him a first class product.  I asked our plant manager if I could meet with the operators who would be running the customer’s order.

I told the operators of our goal on this order and asked them how they wanted to run it.  What kind of printing plates?  What kind of inks? Which film supplier to use?  It wasn’t a very long meeting, but I came away feeling like we had a clear plan on how to produce this order.

When the customer received the order (on time, by the way), he called up to complain.

“We aren’t going to pay for gravure printing (a higher-resolution, more costly process than flexography). This job was supposed to be done flexo.  We need flexo printed film ASAP to make the show”

I explained to him, over the phone, that we had definitely used the flexo printing process on his order and that there would be no change in the price.  I asked him to get a magnifying glass and take a close look at the printing, and pointed out to him the characteristics that verified the printing was flexo.  The customer responded,

“Well, this is the best damn flexo printing I’ve ever seen!  I’m impressed.”

The trade show was a huge success for the customer.  His samples were well-received.

I also conveyed to the crew that ran his order the comments he’d made.  They loved it and you could see the pride on their faces.  They knew they’d done a great job.

Did I remember to mention this crew was all union?  I can only see how these guys put aside management-union bias to show off their skill.  And I never heard a negative word from the union local about meeting with their people or working with them.  We all won that day.

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