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Striking a Balance Temps and Union Workers

January 1, 1996
Related Topics: Contingent Staffing, Labor Relations, Featured Article
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The Dilemma:
During contract negotiations a year ago, you asked union leaders to be flexible on the issue of temporary workers in a new plant your company opened in a growing but volatile market. They agreed. But they recently realized that, though some union personnel have been added, the percentage of temporary workers is significantly higher than allowed by the standard contract. Can you keep the temps, citing industry volatility? Or, should you reduce the percentage of temporary workers at the plant?

Readers Respond:
First, review the purpose of temporary vs. full-time employees and the business-related benefits the temps provide. If the temporary workers have a direct and positive impact on the ability to remain in this volatile market, then reiterate this market position with union leaders and request continued understanding and support as you learn more about your place in this new market.

Second, encourage discussion be-tween union and management leaders on the issue in an attempt to develop alternative solutions to this problem. Do not rule out any solutions, but be sure to look objectively at cost-benefit analysis for each proposed solution.

Third, your continued monitoring of this new market should allow you to feed more information into the problem-sol-ving process. It should be an understood goal of this process to find a solution that will reduce the percentage of temporary workers necessary and still al-low the company to remain in the market.

After all, diversification into new markets goes a long way in maintaining any company’s long-range financial health as well as the employment op-portunities a healthy organization might provide.
Jeffrey L. Slatcoff
VP of Operations
Basic Engineers Inc.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania

If the union contractually agreed to grant you the flexibility to hire a higher percentage of temporary workers at the new facility during the term of the agreement, you retain that flexibility until you agree during the collective bargaining process to change this provision. Since it is extremely important for the union to increase membership and dues revenue, you could probably use this provision as a very effective bargaining chip, even if you were planning to abide by the standard contract provision at some point in the future.

If the agreement was verbal, based on the understanding that a new facility in a volatile industry required this additional flexibility, you do not have the contractual right to utilize this higher percentage of temporary workers indefinitely. If there were no time parameters in the agreement, the union can probably force you to abide by the contractual provisions governing temporary employees, since most contracts specifically state that the labor contract represents the full and complete understanding of the parties—relative to the issues contained therein. Obviously, the standard contract contains provisions restricting your use of temporary workers, therefore the contract would probably prevail in any dispute over a verbal agreement.

Your best alternative would probably be to reach an agreement with the union to begin a gradual transition from a primarily temporary work force to a primarily permanent work force. However, as with many collective bargaining situations, unions are reluctant to grant any concessions or deviations from specific contract language.
Don Wilson
President
Labor Relations Institute
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

In the spirit of compromise, I would keep the temps on, citing the volatility of the market; however, I would negotiate a phase-out of temporary employees tied to the stability of the market. I would negotiate this phase-out incrementally, perhaps over the life of the existing bargaining agreement—so that by the time the contract was up for negotiation, there would be a more favorable balance be-tween temporary workers and union personnel. I would mention, of course, that employing temp workers (who wouldn’t receive benefits) might afford a richer union contract and would certainly avoid potential layoffs due to the industry’s volatility.
Theodora P. Williams
Manager, Training & Development
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois

Since union officials are primarily concerned with the dues they receive from employees, I would enter into a Memorandum of Agreement with the union, wherein any individual temporary employee would be required to pay union dues after ninety days of employment with our company. But it would be understood that they are still temporary employees—unless offered regular jobs—and could therefore be released for any reason, other than as provided by law, without violation of the seniority provisions of the union contract. Ob-viously, both the temp agency and the temps would need to be informed of this provision when contracted.
Terry R. McGeorge
Director, Member Services
MRA-The Management Assoc. Inc.
Brookfield, Wisconsin

How Would You Respond to This Dilemma?
Your company went through its second round of layoffs six months ago—dismissing 245 employees, or 6% of your work force. As expected, you’ve started to notice a change in morale. Employees seem disinterested in the company’s 50th anniversary celebration, there has been an increase in sick days and enthusiasm about next month’s new product release has dropped off considerably.

You’ve kept up to date on this topic, and you recognize the symptoms: your company has a bad case of survivor syndrome (see "Teach Downsizing Survivors How To Thrive," page 38). You’ve come up with some ideas about a few programs you’d like to implement, but you know you’ll face a great deal of resistance from senior management. After all, the downsizing was intended to save money, not generate expenses. With all the effort being put into getting back up to speed, should you "bother" senior management with your ideas, or just encourage employees to seek help outside on their own?

Personnel Journal, January 1996, Vol. 75, No. 1, pp. 103-105.

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