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SSI Labor Adversaries Bury the Hatchet

May 1, 1996
Related Topics: Labor Relations, Featured Article
The end of a strike doesn't always mean the end of problems. Often, the end of a strike is just the beginning of workplace tension. For SSI Services Inc., the end of a nasty strike in 1990 was just the beginning of difficulties between the bargaining units and management.

By 1992, relations had eroded to the point at which workers didn't trust management—and management was suspect of workers' motives. Bitterness, anger, frustration and fear were commonplace. No matter what issue landed on the bargaining table, people couldn't look at it objectively without the veil of resentment clouding their thoughts.

At best, it was a difficult situation. At worst, it was another strike waiting to happen. If worker-management relations—including the bargaining process—didn't improve, both sides were headed for disaster. SSI needed a fresh approach to union relations—and fast.

A divisive strike leaves the workforce tense and bitter.
Winning the contract from PanAm World Services in 1985, SSI, based in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, became the mission support contractor for the U.S. Air Force Materiel Command's Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) located at Arnold Air Force Base near Tullahoma, Tennessee. The AEDC is responsible for developing, certifying and testing of aircraft, missile and space systems for the Air Force. After signing on as one of three government contractors supporting the base, SSI took over many responsibilities on the base, such as facilities maintenance, fire protection, security, logistics and running both a precision machine shop and a fabrication shop.

To complete all these responsibilities, SSI hired 1,350 workers who were represented by 13 different unions—headed by the Air Engineering Metal Trades Council (AEMTC). Most of the workers had been employed formerly by PanAm, and were hired by SSI when it took over the contract. The workers' had a strong allegiance to the base itself, rather than to the employer of the moment (SSI)—because contractors come and go, but the base remains their "home." In addition, management operated within a very bureaucratic organization which placed laborers at the bottom of the pyramid.

During labor negotiations in 1990, SSI sought to improve its work rules to boost productivity and cut costs. The AEMTC, however, wanted to ensure job security, increase benefits and improve the overall quality of life for its members. Negotiations ended in a disruptive 57-day strike right before the year-end holiday season.

Concessions by both parties eventually ended the strike. However, the fallout of mistrust and animosity lasted several years. By 1993, SSI and the AEMTC decided that enough was enough. It was time to radically change the way they dealt with each other.

They realized they had a problem they couldn't ignore and set out to fix it.
Both sides (SSI and the AEMTC) realized there were extremely bad feelings throughout the workforce. They needed to improve relations and prevent future walkouts.

So, SSI's general manager, John Stubbs, and six union leaders got together to talk about the 1990 strike and its long-term effects on morale, trust and teamwork. Key to the discussions was Anthony J. Taylor, SSI's human resources manager and labor relations manager at the time. He's now the HR management specialist for Tullahoma, Tennessee-based ACS, which took over the support contract in 1995. During the very first session, called the "Workforce Effectiveness Workshop," work issues were discussed openly and honestly, without regard to individuals' status or position.

These individuals, and others—including union representatives, managers and HR staff—continued to meet monthly, and sometimes even weekly, for approximately one year. In these subsequent meetings or workshops run by their consultant, Matt Taylor Associates, approximately 40 to 75 people would separate into "breakout teams" of approximately 10 people each to talk about specific options for solving work problems. They tackled problems identified in the sessions by exploring the facts, focusing on the causes and then providing recommendations.

These workshops, which Matt Taylor Associates calls DesignShops™, were assisted by their team of facilitators who were specialists in organizational culture transformation. The facilitators kept the interaction moving, focused and pleasant. Each session lasted 16 to 32 hours, spanning two to three days. Clear agendas were established and followed with separate modules that included team-building and problem-solving exercises.

Whenever a team needed more data, it would turn into a "problem-solving team" and went out to collect more information about the specific issue. Problem-solving teams worked on many issues such as identifying options to reduce health-insurance costs and figuring out possible ways to implement a four-day workweek. This all happened before the actual bargaining talks began so as to identify the issues and to come up with options to discuss during negotiations.

For example, one of the issues a breakout team handled was sick leave. "Many workers felt they were being treated like stepchildren and that management didn't really trust them," says SSI's Taylor, who served on several of the breakout teams, along with various union representatives, company managers and HR staffers. "They felt that because they couldn't take sick leave the very first day [they were sick], they were being treated differently [from nonrepresented employees]." The old policy stated that employees couldn't begin using sick leave until two days after they became ill. The team came up with the idea to give employees a pool of 48 hours to use toward their first two days off (charged against their sick leave). The idea was later embraced by both sides as part of an agreement to keep sick leave usage down and to provide a similar benefit as the non-represented personnel.

Communication between labor and management during these sessions enabled each side to see the world from the other's perspective. During one of the sessions, team members decided to go ahead and "bury the hatchet" (literally). A procession of several managers, union representatives and HR staff marched out to a grassy area on the base grounds to the tune of a funeral march. They buried a tiny coffin bearing an actual hatchet.

"It was very poetic," says SSI's Taylor. "We all agreed that we would never, ever again allow the relationship [between labor and management] to deteriorate to the point that we would have another strike." He adds: "That was the first step in opening lines of communication and developing trust." The symbolic gesture of performing a mock funeral and burying the past helped everyone focus on the tasks at hand.

Implementing a new collective-bargaining process for a new era.
After burying the hatchet, the HR manager and general manager traveled to Washington, D.C. to the National Labor Management Conference to seek out better ways of collective bargaining. There, they heard about a new team-based bargaining process that was helping organizations improve labor-management relations and negotiations. Target-specific bargaining, developed by Don Powers of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service based in Washington, D.C., seemed to be just what SSI and the AEMTC were looking for. Target-specific bargaining principles dictate that the negotiating parties focus on narrowing down work problems to only a few key issues, and work for their resolution by using joint data-gathering and problem-solving teams that bring recommendations back to the main negotiating committee—something SSI and the AEMTC had already been experimenting with. They were on the right track, but learned new techniques to help them on their way.

Under Powers' model, work issues are identified before the actual contract talks begin. In this way, similar topics are merged together and options are identified long before negotiations start. The basic open and honest communications learned during SSI and the AEMTC's DesignShops, became the basis for a unique and successful new approach to bargaining. So, when SSI and the AEMTC sat down for contract talks with this new process in 1993, they had only 13 issues to tackle—the bargaining unit had eight issues and SSI management had five. "That's really different from the 40 to 50 that people usually have," says Taylor.

"In this particular model, everybody's empowered to talk and voice their opinion," he adds. "And if there was an issue we couldn't agree on, we'd assign a team to work on it."

The negotiating committee consisted of top-level managers from SSI, led by Taylor and the chief stewards from the AEMTC. Facilitation was provided by an SSI manager who was selected by consensus of both sides for his objective nature and valuable experience in dealing with people—both labor and management, throughout his career in the military and in business. Information and training was provided to the committee from various sources—including in-house HR personnel—on benefits, target-specific bargaining, group problem solving and data gathering.

Going into negotiations, the joint data-gathering and problem-resolution teams were met with skepticism by both sides. However, things improved as several separate breakout teams formed to gather data and provide recommendations on such issues as sick-leave benefits, workers'-compensation allowances, and temporary promotions.

Communication between, and among, negotiating committee members was emphasized by the facilitator. The committee met during normal working hours two to three times each week. Meetings usually were conducted for a maximum of four hours to minimize fatigue, unlike former negotiating sessions that dragged on into the wee hours of the morning resulting in agreements rooted in desperation. The facilitator was invaluable in keeping meetings on track and objective.

Other than breakout teams specifically commissioned by the negotiating committee, small sidebar meetings of labor and management personnel were prohibited. Separate labor or management meetings were kept to a minimum to ensure maximum communication during joint negotiating sessions rather than outside of them.

Moving toward a team-based organization.
One of the issues identified during the new open communication process was that there wasn't enough voice from labor about what was going on within the organization. Workers didn't have enough say in things like project execution, the way the business was run and choice of tools to get their jobs done right. So, as part of the new worker-involvement philosophy, SSI initiated teams.

Approximately 20 employee-involvement teams formed with the support of the HR and Quality departments, bringing expertise and experience from labor and management together to accomplish common objectives. Several total quality (TQ) teams were initiated and followed established problem-solving processes such as those described in books like Joseph M. Juran's "Roadmap to Quality Improvement" and Phillip Crosby's "Natural Work Teams." Some of the team's goals were to cut down cycle time and save costs. Everybody (both labor and management) looked at the processes they were involved in and made changes for improved performance and greater customer satisfaction. Overall, this enabled day-to-day operations to be conducted without direct supervision in the printing plant, a small machine shop, an instrument lab and a graphics group.

For the first time, craft employees recommended solutions to technical problems, and helped in long-range planning, both implemented through various cross-functional teams. In effect, the entire internal environment of the organization evolved from adversarial to cooperative.

Implementing a skills update.
One of the concerns raised by the bargaining unit was that its members weren't given the opportunity to improve their skills. The assumption was that craft personnel had received all the training they needed when they originally trained for their professions. "With the technological environment that we're in today, [craft personnel] felt they should know some of the basics associated with personal computers, for example," says Taylor. "So we set out to make sure that not only our nonrepresented employees received that type of basic training, but that our represented employees had that training as well."

The HR training coordinator assessed training requirements for craft personnel, addressing those needs equally for management and technical professionals. Basic computer courses were developed for those with minimal PC backgrounds. Adds Taylor: "We trained 100% of all bargaining employees in computer skills." Also added were courses in technical drawing interpretation, welding inspection, and major equipment operation and repair. The company also introduced advanced training requirements for craftspeople and organized classes for achieving those skills.

Any other training workers received would be job-based, because, as Taylor says: "The organization doesn't have the resources to make it perpetual training—there has to be a need. Those who have to use computers in their jobs will continue to receive training to [maintain productivity] in their particular work environment."

Eureka! They've got a contract.
With all this cooperation, negotiations with the AEMTC were completed in record time—three months prior to contract expiration with a five-year agreement (the longest in AEDC history) and an attitude that the best was yet to come. In one-third of the time of previous talks, the negotiating team agreed on topics such as overtime administration, temporary employment guidelines, job-posting procedures, implementation of a four-day workweek, sick leave, workers' compensation and wages.

Influenced by this success, subsequent negotiations between SSI and the International Guards Union of America followed a similar methodology. At the time, there were 50 workers in the union. This time a member of the AEMTC was chosen as the facilitator. Negotiations concluded with a historic 10-year agreement, also months ahead of contract expiration.

An ongoing process of communication, training and joint problem resolution goes on today. A Labor and Management Relations Committee (LMRC) evolved from the 1993 negotiating committee. It's co-chaired by the HR manager and a chief union steward. The LMRC meets monthly to address the most pertinent concerns of its members. In addition to their training in target-specific bargaining, teamwork and TQ basics, LMRC members have also traveled to labor-management conferences on the local, state and national levels. In-house seminars have been expanded to include alternate dispute resolution methods and procedures from Stephen R. Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Both have been facilitated by HR staff.

The LMRC is kept separate from formal administrative processes established by the contract, and therefore doesn't infringe on matters defined within the contract. Instead, the LMRC heads off problems before they develop into violations.

The atmosphere of mistrust that existed after the strike of 1990 has disappeared. The culture has turned into one focused on continuous improvement—even as resources shrink. Problem-solving teams composed of labor and management are now the norm, whereas they were nonexistent before 1990. By working together, the mission support contract expected to yield approximately $5 million in cost savings and efficiencies for fiscal 1995.

The biggest key to success was achieving an atmosphere of trust and open communication prior to the negotiating process. If labor and management aren't working together before negotiations, they certainly aren't going to work well during the process. Also, bringing a minimum number of issues to the table did a great deal to enable the committee to focus, solve each problem and move on. Using joint data-gathering teams to collect facts and bring well thought-out recommendations to the bargaining table shortened negotiating time and ensured consensus.

Issues were solved on the basis of facts vs. feelings. Without the support of HR personnel bringing all the facts, training, and leadership for change to the table, the success realized would never have been achieved.

Personnel Journal, May 1996, Vol. 75, No. 5, pp. 100-107.

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