Our employees and their work represent the front line of government contact and quality of life impact for most citizens at the local level. Employee costs, furthermore, constitute our largest budgetary expense. In the light of both of these facts, I think it rather incumbent upon me to proffer my thoughts on what is commonly referred to as labor-management relations. In that most of our employees are unionized, the scope of our discussion will be restricted to that of managing the Town’s services within the context of our unionized labor force.

I begin with an unsophisticated profile of the current labor (union)-management relationship. Both by force of law and choice, the Town establishes the kinds, extent and priorities of services to be provided to the community. The Town also furnishes labor in the form of a cadre of managers to oversee the work proximately associated with these services. Town unions, through collective bargaining, agree to supply labor for the work more immediately associated with community service. Thus two groups labor at the work constitutive to the various services the Town provides – unions and management.

Traditionally, the relationship between these two groups may be characterized as adversarial and competitive, each jealously guarding and fighting for its perceived rights. But recent studies and developments suggest that a more cooperative relationship, that is, one that is service-driven (vs. “rights”-driven), collaborative and participatory, yields not only a more positive relationship, but higher quality services, greater cost-effectiveness, and more enjoyable and satisfying work for both groups. A vision for greater labor-management cooperation, therefore, should not be dismissed out of hand, especially at a time when citizens and the State are pressing local governments to contain costs (cf. the tax cap) while demanding improved services that grow ever more difficult and complex.

Let me be clear. Whereas I intend to be an advocate of ‘labor-management cooperation,’ I am not suggesting that the workplace become a democracy. The determination of service delivery priorities, policies and outcomes must, in the end, remain the responsibility (not the right) of management. But an over-reliance upon traditional command-and-control structures and systems can stifle operational innovation and dampen employee morale, both of these having been shown to correlate with the level of employee and agency productivity as well as customer (citizen and employee) satisfaction. This observation is as true for unions, which have their own hierarchies, as it is for public agencies.

So why not open up channels to facilitate greater accessibility, transparency, consultation and cooperation between labor and management on issues relating to service delivery and the quality of work life that go beyond the scope of bargaining or statutory requirements? To the degree practicable, why not intentionally engage labor in shaping agency vision and goals, in problem-solving and decision-making, and in the planning, designing, organizing and implementing of work processes? Why not flatten hierarchical structures and/or decentralize some control so as to broaden employee discretion and responsibility, always, of course, without putting the agency’s mission in jeopardy by instituting innovative accountability structures? In a word, why not seek to become more inclusive instead of simply and perhaps unreflectively remaining in structures and systems bequeathed to us from another era?

To do so will require that our mental models – that is, the assumptions and expectations that we hold with regard to the responsibilities and rights attending each area of Town government and the various positions within them – be challenged and, as may be warranted and/or promising, realigned. Where encountered, antiquated and entrenched bureaucratic barriers that slow, diminish and even kill innovation will need to be torn down. Outdated rules, regulations, procedures and, most importantly, industrial era management principles and practices may need to be exchanged for those that are more attuned to contemporary society and business practices. New or at least expanded sets of work roles, attitudes, knowledge and skills will need to be fostered among all employees – management and labor.

Such a comprehensive approach, of course, represents a paradigm shift in labor-management relations, namely, to that of a qualified partnership. It would, accordingly, require openness, commitment and vision on the part of leadership – elected officials, appointed managers, and union officers. It is a leadership challenge that should begin with the Town Board. I, for one, refuse to accept the long-held dogma which insists that labor’s responsibility to serve the interests of its membership and management’s responsibility to provide effective and efficient public services are necessarily antithetical to each other.

I end with the oft quoted words of Thomas Edison: “If there is a way to do it better – find it.” I believe that labor-management cooperation represents a better way to serve our community.

See also my strategic plan, Goal 5 – Objectives 1, 2 & 4.

Next week – Police Service.