Friday, March 18, 2011

Lenten thoughts on unions facing crises

The season of Lent is a time when you can make an examination of conscience to reflect on your life and how to make it better. You can do so as an individual in examining your family life, but also in examining your working life.

Let’s say you are a union leader. What might be the scope and substance of your examination of conscience?

Here is an illustration taken from a major address that Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, gave in June last year to the Center for Automotive Research Conference. Titled “A UAW for the 21st,century,” the speech drew on King’s 41 years in the UAW. It was a product of intense reflection on the state of his union both before and after the crisis of 2008-2009.

“Although triggered by the financial meltdown,” he said, “the crisis in the auto industry had its roots in behaviors and cultures – both within the companies and within the union – that were outmoded and unsuited for the 21stcentury…. The UAW of the 21st century must be fundamentally different from the UAW of the 20st century.”

The 20st century UAW, he said:

-- grew in an era of national rather than global economics, where employers did not face the intense pressure of global competition. The 21st-century UAW recognizes that flexibility, innovation, lean manufacturing and continuous cost improvement are paramount in the global marketplace.

-- joined with the companies in a mindset that it was the company’s job to worry about profits, and the union’s job to worry about getting the workers their fair share. The 21st-century UAW embraces as our own the mission of producing the highest quality, best value products for our customers.

-- was not primarily focused on the needs of the consumers, and we failed to champion forcefully or effectively enough the goals of preserving our environment for future generations through green manufacturing. The 21st-century UAW makes as a priority the interests of consumer safety, energy efficiency, and environmental protection.

-- fell into a pattern with our employers where we saw each other as adversaries rather than partners… Our new relationships with these employers are built upon a foundation of respect, shared goals, and a common mission.

-- tried to find ways to achieve job security, such as job banks, that in the end did not achieve the result we were seeking. The 21st-century UAW knows that the only true path to job security is by producing the best quality product, the safest product and the longest lasting product, at the best price.

-- reacted with hostility and resistance to the historic changes brought about by the globalization of the economy. The 21st-century UAW is adopting a constructive and positive approach to global trade and global development, and we are committed to being citizens of the world and achieving trade that spreads prosperity and lessens poverty.
King’s outline, even for a large national union with a global reach, offers ideas that could be adapted to other kinds of unions – even to U.S. unions in the public sector coping with their own crises. Take this variation on one of King’s points:

Our union will join our governmental counterparts in our joint mission to render the highest quality and best value service for the public.

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