Labor-Management Partnerships Boost Training

April 1, 1999
American businesses are estimated to lose more than $60 billion in productivity each year due to employees’ lack of basic skills, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute for Literacy. Yet a mail survey conducted in 1994 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that only 2.2 percent of all establishments in the United States were providing training in basic reading, writing, math and English language skills in the previous year.

"The percentage is dismal," says Tony R. Sarmiento, director, Worker Center Learning, a division of the AFL-CIO Working For America Institute in Washington, D.C. "What we have is a lack of opportunity for adults to add to their skills—not a lack of interest," he says. By working together, however, unions and management are creating effective learning environments where adults can take their next steps toward literacy and career development.

"What we have is a lack of opprtunity for adults to add to their skils -- not a lack of interest," says Sarmiento.

HR helps make the partnership possible.
Although joint union-management training efforts aren’t new, many labor organizations have made training and worker development top priorities at the bargaining table. "These kinds of programs gained steam in the ’80s, but the ’90s brought it to a critical mass," says Marshall Goldberg, director of the New York City-based Association of Joint Labor/Management Educational Program. The partnerships ensure that both sides are held more accountable.

As high skill levels and versatility become increasingly important in a service-oriented, technology-based global economy, HR professionals in union settings (and non-union settings) will have to develop programs in a variety of forms. Programs can vary in cost, governance, design, curriculum and location. Each will depend on the industry and the needs of workers and employers.

The good news is that workplace literacy programs don’t have to be expensive. In fact, federal and state grants and tax credits are available to make the incentives more palatable. Below are some examples of labor and management partnerships that have successfully tackled the training issue.

The good news is that workplace literacy programs don't have to be expensive. In fact, grants and tax credits are available to make the incentives more palatable.

Cooperation is the key to effective training.
In most cases of cooperative training and education efforts, a joint board composed of equal union and management representatives has been involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of various programs. According to the AFL-CIO, this approach ensures that a consensus is reached among the two parties. Funding to the programs is most often negotiated in the union contract, although some of the more established and successful programs have received government funding to extend their services to more workers.

John Dietsch is an example of a worker who stretched his potential. A high school dropout at age 17, he entered the military service. Later, he became a truck driver before embarking on a 22-year career as a steelworker at Bethlehem’s Sparrows Point facility in Baltimore.

But when Bethlehem announced plans to open a new cold sheet mill, Dietsch, then 52, was forced to reconsider the importance of an education. He had to pass an entrance exam that established a baseline of basic skills for work in the new mill. He turned to the Merrillville, Indiana-based Institute for Career Development (ICD) for help.

ICD is a workforce training program for eligible members of the Steelworkers Union. It was created in 1989 as a result of contract negotiations between the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and major steel companies. Today, the joint labor-management initiative oversees the Career Development programs, which includes GED preparation to graduate-level college courses.

Approximately 85 percent of the courses are customized, says Andy Smith, spokeman for ICD. Instructors are hired to teach classes specifically to steelworkers. Access to other courses is made available through a tuition-assistance program that provides up to $1,800 annually to each worker for tuition, books and fees at accredited institutions of higher learning.

Smith says that ICD’s program was negotiated by the union in contracts with 13 steel companies. Those 13 companies have 53 plant sites in 13 states where Career Development programs have been implemented. The steel companies set aside 10 cents for each hour worked by USWA steelworkers to fund the programs. Currently, approximately 10 percent of the 600,000 USWA members have ICD as a negotiated benefit in their contracts.

Dietsch is among those who’ve taken advantage of the educational opportunity. In tutoring sessions, he learned not only what he needed to pass the test, but that he had a passion for learning. After passing the mill test, he announced plans to get a GED. "I’m doing the whole nine yards and I love it," he says. "The more knowledge I have, the better I’ll be about steel and the world."

Arlene McKinley came to the same conclusion as Dietsch. She also wanted to improve her career. Like many steelworkers, she dreamed of getting a college degree, but found it difficult to find time for classes. A checker at Bethlehem Burns Harbor, McKinley amassed approximately 65 college credits over a span of 10 years by taking classes whenever her unpredictable schedule as a shift worker would allow it. She needed a more convenient way to go to school and found it in the ICD-sponsored distance-learning program.

McKinley is one of a handful of trailblazing steelworkers who have enrolled in the program, earning college credits through Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, New York, without ever setting a foot on campus. Indeed, forward-thinking programs like ICD are designed to train workers beyond their current job descriptions.

Years ago, it was enough to teach immigrant workers English. As Corporate America shifts to high-performance workplaces, employees need to improve their other skills.

Employers benefit from training efforts such as ICD, as well. Joint programs, says Goldberg, motivate the workforce to learn. "Employees who are involved with continuous learning tend to deal with change more effectively," he says. The programs also help human resources retain quality workers and attract skilled workers into the organization. By offering the opportunity to retrain and upgrade the skills of current workers who are committed to the company, employers yield a more loyal workforce.

Training partnerships assist adult immigrants.
Labor unions also have provided ESL instruction at the workplace since the early days of the century. But today, through partnerships between educators, employers and unions, the training of larger numbers of immigrants is underway. Years ago, it was enough to teach immigrant workers English. As Corporate America shifts to high-performance workplaces, all employees need to improve other basic skills: communication, problem-solving skills and knowledge of workplace organization.

Many unions have thus negotiated training through the collective bargaining agreements. Among them are the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in New York City, the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA). To extend the educational benefits of union membership, employers and unions increasingly have sponsored programs in which spouses and other family members can participate. In fact, the UAW requires that recruitment for educational programs include spouses.

Although most workplace ESL programs teach job-related English, some also teach what workers want to know and what unions want their members to learn. For example, many programs may teach general life skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking, as well as job-specific instruction. Others may offer worker-centered education where worker rights, such as filing a grievance, are taught.

Through a series of grants from the National Workplace Literacy Program of the U.S. Department of Education, garment workers are combining ESL with broader basic skills education. The Worker Education Program, for example, is a partnership between the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and 10 companies in three states: Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. It provides more than 2,000 adult union members with job-specific basic skills classes in ESL, reading, writing and math. It also provides GED preparation, literacy, communications, teamwork and problem-solving skills for the workplace. "In every program I’ve seen that has been established through joint-labor management, one sees higher levels of participation and retention," says Sarmiento.

Most ESL programs teach job-related English, but many programs teach general life skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking, as well as job-related instruction.

The benefits for the employer and the union also abound. On the HR side, employers will enhance their communication with workers and the union, promote workers from within company ranks, increase on-line production and enhance quality-control measures. On the union side, labor representatives will enhance English communications with their members, gain more active members, increase the number of members using union services, and enhance communication with management of the companies.

So if you’re a union-shop employer, and your labor contract is up for renewal, consider the merit of including training goals in your next collective bargaining agreement. By doing so, HR will be able to align employer and employee training needs, set specific goals and project agreed-upon costs. Remember, as we approach the 21st century, the education and development of your workforce will be the key to your competitive edge.

Workforce, April 1999, Vol. 78, No. 4, pp. 80-85.