For Better Labor Relations, Try Employee Engagement

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , January 10, 2011

Here's the problem: The rest of us have to muddle through with the actions of these highly charged partisans whose first order of business is to destroy the middle ground. These actions fuel rancor, distrust, divisiveness — and paranoia — and set a terrible example for union-management cooperation that people in the real world have to strive for.  

Many management consultants on labor issues — while obviously not enamored of unions— also understand that hard-headed, heel-digging opposition and denial on the part of management are not good strategies for keeping unions at bay. Employee engagement is far more effective. Jay Krupin, a veteran labor relations attorney, told me recently, "Employees only go to unions when they feel the employer is not listening. Unions don't organize employees, managers do."

Unions are a reality, they have a proud tradition of standing up for working people, they've indisputably improved the lives of tens of millions of people, and they are here to stay, particularly in healthcare. Deal with it.

However, unions lose public support when their top priority is perceived to be self-preservation of their members — particularly senior leaders — at the expense of raising standards and the common good. Teachers' unions have been particularly and effectively maligned for this. But healthcare unions will run the risk as well if they're not careful. Is the push for mandatory staffing ratios for nurses fueled by a genuine desire for better care, for example, or a savvy strategy to sign up more dues-paying union members? Are unions truly interested in employee engagement with management, or do they resist engagement because it weakens "them-against-us" organizing efforts?

There's nothing wrong with debating the management-labor relationship, and taking a firm stance on one side or the other.  At some point, however, even capitalist stalwarts such as Henry Ford realized that compromise has to be brokered or nothing gets done.  Most people outside of Congress understand this.

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