Editor’s Note: This is an op-ed from Mike Hellstom, secretary treasurer, Laborers Local 108 and Ron Bergamini, CEO, Action Carting Environmental Services.
Unions have been in the news lately. The US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME holding that public sector employees can benefit from union representation without paying dues has garnered much commentary. That, as well as growing concerns about income inequality, has thrust the social and political role of unions into the forefront of public debate in a way we have not seen in years.
Also in the news—and rightly so—is the issue of civility (or lack thereof) in public discourse. Some folks in high places are acting without much civility; leading to debates about what civility entails or whether it still matters. There seems to even be a movement to fight incivility with more of it, an irony too rich to start exploring here.
So you might suppose that the world of labor relations is a place where the contagion of broken discourse would be spreading wildly. After all, long-held stereotypes (and some of the best movies) about unions feature hand-to-hand combat, literally.
We are therefore hopefully in a position to pleasantly surprise you that in the sometimes rough-and-tumble industry of collecting and processing NYC’s huge private-sector waste and recyclable stream, individual labor and business leaders are negotiating vigorously while advocating publicly together for the benefit of a shared constituency—the workers. One might even say leaders have taken an enlightened approach to improving their industry. Forgive our bias, but we are those two leaders.
As NYC continues to struggle with a dramatically changing solid waste landscape, Laborers Local 108 and Action Carting have built a mature business and bargaining partnership, based on hard-fought but fair deals that have provided across the board benefits. Some activists, another union, and too many elected officials prefer to play on stereotypes and some particularly bad actors to portray the whole waste industry as out control and impervious to the needs of workers, the community, and the environment. What they fail to see—what they don’t want to see—is that years of having disagreements that get resolved has built the practice of hearing one another’s perspectives, enabling us to now reach close to a consensus on what it means for employers in this industry to operate well and responsibly.
Such a breakthrough happens when both parties recognize that while they have different priorities, they have the same core constituency. A business must respect its employees in order to retain them. The more you recognize the value of your people and let them know that, the more likely your business will succeed. A union needs to recognize that its members are served best when working for a business that has purpose and profits.
Some activists, another union, and too many elected officials prefer to play on stereotypes and some particularly bad actors to portray the whole waste industry as out control and impervious to the needs of workers, the community, and the environment.
Here are some of the most important things trusted labor partners can teach one another. No matter how enlightened a business leader thinks he or she is, a strong and responsible bargaining partner provides a necessary voice for workers and a means to make those voices heard. Management should understand that it needs to both know the perspective of its employees and trust that a strong and responsible union can effectuate beneficial changes to the business’s operations. The key word in that last sentence is “trust”.
Trust is the foundation of any relationship. It allows management to share real-time information with a union about what it needs to grow, without fear that such transparency will be exploited in the next contract negotiations. From the union’s perspective, it requires remaining actively engaged with workers—not so as to recklessly sow discontent—but to foster workforce cohesion based on a well-founded confidence that a positive focus will be rewarded with fair treatment and shared future success.
The research is overwhelming that engaged workers must be the top priority of any business. Engaged workers are safer, perform better, understand their purpose and thus are happier and far more likely to stay. No employer has ever uttered the phrase, “finding good people is easy.” So when you find them, the idea is to keep them.
In our relationship, the union is another avenue by which management can learn about its own business. A well-informed union can also better educate the workers based on its communication and business expertise. Make no mistake, issues arise that lead to disagreement. Power struggles ensue on the shop-floor and at the bargaining table. But so long as the accumulated equity and trust borne from past successes remains high, there is every reason to believe that fair resolutions will result in a more profitable company, stronger union, and ultimately more equity in the relational bank.
So while the Janus decision is no doubt going to bring untold change to the make-up of public sector unions and their relationships with municipal and state employers, we feel proud to offer an example of what labor-management relations can be like.
We are in the trenches together every day, where the view is quite different than from the cheap seats. Neither of us uniformly gets it right nor is always pleased with the other—but we work through it. The result has been the creation of hundreds of middle-class jobs for people who would not otherwise have led middle-class lives. This is not our goal; it is our achievement. The relationship did not come-about over-night; but we believe we have found a standard to aspire towards in the rapidly changing terrain of employment relations.