Laboring America


Laboring America


Which auto executive said this about his organization: We “recognize(s) that flexibility, innovation, lean manufacturing and continuous cost improvement are paramount in the global marketplace.” You might not have guessed that it was Bob King, new president of the United Auto Workers, who also said the “21st century UAW must be fundamentally and radically different from the UAW of the 20th century.”  Wow – kind of striking, isn’t it?  King has noted how union workers and leaders wrestled with Ford execs last year, with the union successfully insisting they together work out bugs in the new (and I might add very cool) Taurus before it was launched. They recognize that without quality they’ve got nothing.

As Tom Walsh of the Free Press wrote over the weekend, this recalibration ain’t all a party.  Brutally tough talks are around the corner between the UAW and Ford, and especially with GM and Chrysler. Those companies, facing bankruptcy and Washington’s intervention, forced deep cuts in jobs (the UAW shed nearly 200,000 members) and salaries (cuts of $7,000 to $30,000 per year). With some rebound, union members will want some recognition for their sacrifices.

We are almost ALL in a period of recalibration, like that which Bob King is leading at the UAW.  For families, companies, and governments at all three levels, the pie has been shrinking, and the golden goose that laid plenty of good-paying  jobs seems to be ailing. Hard negotiations lie ahead for so many of us – certainly for all of us as US citizens, as we ask how to grow the economic pie and how to distribute tax revenues in a way that is sustainable and fair.

Maybe we can all learn from the autos. For the UAW and auto management, it will be so easy to resort to old struggles and win-lose scenarios. We all hope they won’t. In theory the answer is simple; we can’t lose sight of what Bob King and his leaders know: the union must be a partner in growing the pie, constantly improving quality and efficiency. And management must recognize how critical a partner labor is. Some level of fair sharing in profits will be essential.

I’ll bet every reader I have has a judgment – whether conscious or not – about who will need to give or give more –labor or management.  I expect I will hear from the truly angry-against-labor crowd and maybe some angry lefties. But, wait!!!! I want to suggest two opportunities for practice here: (1) We should all fight to avoid the zero-sum game in the first-place. The key is for us all to work together on shared objectives – greater innovation, competitiveness, efficiency, and fair returns.  (2) Ideologies can really get in the way, whether the knee-jerk laisezz-fairians or the knee-jerk socialists (and I mean people who call themselves socialists, not those being plastered with the broad brush so in fashion these days).

Ideology is simple, but the devil is always in the details, and emerges from genuine dialog, instead of harsh positioning. Finding a balance between higher wages vs. lowering a company’s debt is no easy choice: it demands patience, rationality, and probably some risk-taking to build trust (whether with Wall Street and/or with working people). All the vitriol we’re seeing in this time of scarcity isn’t helping much at all. The autos of 2010 aren’t the companies of Harry Bennett’s union busting madmen, and the unions aren’t controlled by communists trying to siphon every last dollar of profit.  We can help, just as we can help Washington, by dialing down the rhetoric, and helping people talk about the truly hard choices and how to fairly and intelligently make them.

We can probably all stand to open our minds and keep gunning to seek first to understand and to achieve win-wins, as through hard times, we

Lead with our best selves,


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