Dancing With the Bear: Lessons From Labor-Management Cooperation

The classic analogy fits:  union and management learning to cooperate is a lot like learning to dance with a bear—you don’t quit just because you get tired.  And in most cases—in the US paper industry at least—neither party is quite sure which one’s the bear.

We set out to see what we could learn about the labor-management dance taking place within the U.S. paper industry–an industry that’s seen more than its share of turmoil.  We set out to discover what unions and management have learned from the dance:  How many started dancing together?  Why did they start?  What issues might have interrupted or stopped them?  Has the dance been worth the time and effort invested?  And, of course, have they kept dancing?  We aimed to learn what we could from the real experience of labor and management in the U.S. paper industry.

Testing Assumptions and Beliefs

Since 1984, we have been business consultants with a particular focus on helping labor and management develop productive working relationships for their mutual benefit.   In that time, we have worked with hundreds of companies and more than thirty different labor unions.  Some of this work, starting in the early ‘80s, has been in the paper industry with its related unions.  Mostly, it has been foundation work:  helping union and management leaders explore, choose and build better working relationships and bring their constituents along with them.

Along the way, we have built some assumptions, established a few principles, and learned hard lessons about what works and why.  But we had never asked, in any concerted way, what lessons unions and companies themselves have learned, and how their experience might be useful to others.  So, we chose to put our own assumptions and beliefs about labor-management cooperation on the table and test their validity.  We took our own typical consulting advice: we asked participants what they thought. An industry survey took shape.

Defining the Term

The history of cooperative efforts is strewn with acronyms: from QWL in the 70s, through LMPT’s in the 80s, to HPWS in the 90s, and assorted others beyond.  For the purpose of our study, we used this definition:

Labor-Management Cooperative Efforts: Jointly planned, structured and supported activities intended to involve both union and management in goal-setting, planning, problem-solving, decision-making and work improvement in the organization for the mutual benefit of both parties.

We excluded informal, ad hoc or episodic “dances” between union and management lacking intentional purpose, form and function.

US Paper Industry Survey

There have been few attempts, we discovered, to gather industry-specific data about Labor-Management Cooperative Efforts.  We developed and revised our own survey instrument specifically targeting the US paper industry.  It included seven demographic questions and fifteen items specific to labor-management cooperation.   We mailed the survey to specified management leaders at 629 pulp and paper mills and to the Presidents of 300 union Locals, all in the US.  Within three weeks of the initial mailing, we sent reminder postcards to all recipients.

To solicit a ground floor view of cooperative efforts, we intentionally chose local operating mill sites, and targeted operations management rather than corporate or international union offices.  We also anonymously coded union and management surveys at common locations to avoid duplication of responses from those mills.

Initial Responses

We received 110 survey responses.  Respondents from forty non-union mills returned blank surveys as requested (since, by definition, they would have had no union-management cooperative efforts).  We compared the seventy remaining unionized mills with the 629 mills listed in the Lockwood-Post Directory in terms of the types of product (pulp, paper, or pulp and paper), and the product variety they produce.   Based on this, we conclude the seventy are statistically representative of the US Paper industry as a whole.
Of these seventy unionized mills, forty-seven answered “yes” to the gate question “Has there ever been a Labor-Management Cooperative Effort at your location?” The conclusions we have drawn from the survey are based on data from union or management respondents at these forty-seven different mill sites.  (In only one case did we receive a management and union response from the same location.)  These forty-seven reported their experience with Labor-Management Cooperative Efforts from as early as “the 1960’s” through 2000.  Following is what we learned about labor and management “dancing with the bear.”

Who Dances, and Why?

Larger companies, with greater than $1B in revenue, and mills of 500 or more employees producing two or more products are the most likely venues for labor-management cooperative efforts.  In an industry that has seen ever-increasing acquisition and consolidation and that has focused on increasing product variety, this stands to reason.  As competitive advantage through technology, access to capital and economy of scale diminishes, what’s left?  Companies turn to increasing innovation in how people work.  They begin paying more attention to getting the right people doing the right work better to meet customer and environmental demands.  For unionized companies, this raises a fundamental choice:  What will be our basic working relationship with the union?   Cooperation is clearly one—but only one—of the choices.  Necessity is the mother of invention; and in this case, of choosing to dance with the bear.

The most frequently cited reasons for starting a cooperative effort were, in order, these three:  First, to reduce conflict.  One respondent described it well:  “We started out basically trying to change from the old style of having to fight with each other on every issue to trying to work together.”  Second, most efforts were started to develop a wider sense of ownership and commitment.  Third, to enhance employee morale.  These “softer” reasons cited for starting the dance were followed by more tangible concerns.  Respondents next cited:  getting contributions to business improvement, reducing costs, and responding to competitive threat.  It is clear that the initial intent of most cooperative efforts is to affect the fundamental relationship first, then to build on that foundation for business improvement.
Who’s on the dance floor?  Most respondents described cooperative efforts as site-wide at their locations. They are not confined to pilot projects or specific functional areas.  These efforts also are not limited to Bargaining Unit employees, but most often involve all employees at the location.

Quitting the Dance

Apparently, it is possible to stop dancing with the bear.  Of those starting a cooperative effort, 23% reported discontinuing it altogether.  We asked why by providing in our survey a dozen possible reasons for stopping an effort.  These, in order, are the three most frequently chosen:
First, inadequate management support. Two comments, typical of those from both union and management respondents, describe this issue:

“In the face of the progress at our mill, my own bosses made an economic and philosophical decision to curtail support.  Cooperation died as result.  This was happening corporate wide.  We call it The Labor Wars.”

“An effort is really stifled if management does not continue support…Employees are disillusioned and distrustful, and most realize their input has minimal impact.”

Change of management leadership is the second most frequently cited reason for ending a cooperative effort.  A typical comment illustrates:

“We’re hindered to a great degree when the company changes mill managers.  Lower management stops support until they understand the new manager’s views.  The biggest barrier is the mindset of new management that’s in control, versus the management mindset when we began ‘partnering’.”

Third, union respondents said efforts failed because they were perceived as too one-sided.  Responses to a later question about benefits from cooperative efforts support this view.  We found 77% of respondents reported “moderate to significant” benefits for the company, compared to 56% who reported the same for the union and its members.

Stumbling and Stepping on Toes

It’s a long dance, once begun.  The average duration of continuing cooperative efforts is 6.35 years.  A majority of 77% continue once they start; but not without stumbling.  We asked those who continued what obstacles they had to overcome to do so.  Provided a choice of fifteen possible roadblocks, respondents cited these three in highest order of frequency:

  1. Behaviors inconsistent with the intent of the effort
  2. Rank and file resistance
  3. Lack of follow-through on agreements

Though we did not ask specifically which bear stepped on who’s toes, we expected differences between union and management views of obstacles.  Surprisingly, there was little appreciable difference on the top three cited.

Beyond the top three obstacles, management respondents named “Unwillingness to let go of the past.”  Union members added “change of management leadership” and “foot-dragging” as additional obstacles frequently needing attention.

Why Bother Dancing?

Early attempts at Labor-Management Cooperative Efforts in American industry were often derided, by management and union nay-sayer’s alike, as misguided social experiments.  Those who chose to dance with the bear were likely to be accused of getting in bed with it.  The benefits of a cooperative versus adversarial relationships were, too often, vaguely conceived and more vaguely communicated.  Neither party was clear about the crucial starting question, “What’s in it for us?”

A company and a union involved in a cooperative effort are separate and distinct institutions with needs that are sometimes common, sometimes different, and often competing.  We chose to test the familiar assumption that “cooperation is good for the company, so it’s good for the employees.”  More precisely, we asked separate questions about the institutional benefits of cooperative efforts:  the first describing potential benefits for the company, the second for the union and its members.

Given separate sets of potential benefits and a five-point response scale, following are the benefits most frequently cited as “moderate” to “significant”:

Benefits for the company:

  1. Safety
  2. Quality Improvements
  3. Productivity Improvements
  4. Better Working Relationships

Benefits for the union and members:

  1. Safety
  2. More Influence over what affects them
  3. Better Working Conditions
  4. Opportunities for skill improvement

Management and union respondents essentially agree on their ranking of benefits for both parties.  It’s worth noting, however, that union respondents perceive the benefits for the company to be substantially more significant than do the management respondents.  Both agree they’re winning the dance contest, but one bear thinks the other’s prize is bigger.
We wondered what benefits were not being achieved that kept cooperative efforts from meeting our stringent definition of “success.”  There are four:  increased union membership, additional bargaining unit jobs, sharing in the gains from improvements, and increased pay and benefits.  There is a striking difference in “soft” and “hard” benefits between union and company.  The four benefits most often not achieved go directly to the heart of a union’s traditional  institutional requirements:  jobs, membership and pay.

We asked respondents to tell us the dollar benefit attributable to their labor-management cooperative effort since its beginning.  Curiously, fewer than half responded to this question.  We assume they either did not know, or the data simply is not available.  Responses ranged from “under $100K (7) to “over $5M (5), with the largest number (10) citing $100-500K.

Finally, we asked this question:  Considering all the costs, has the benefit exceeded the investment?  Not surprisingly, given the benefits cited earlier, 52% answered “Yes,” while 9% said “No.”  It’s intriguing that 39% of respondents answered “Not sure.”  This could mean that dancing with the bear, though it may get you a trophy, is just too darned hard.  We don’t know.

Looking for the Best Dancers

Who has succeeded at dancing with the bear?  To answer the question, we initially defined “successful” cooperative efforts quite stringently.  First, we reasoned, those who were successful would say their effort was worth it—“yes, the benefit exceeded the investment.”  Second, they would point at “moderate to significant “ benefits for both company and union in all categories.  With the bar set this high, only 10.8% of those reporting cooperative efforts—about 5 of 46 mill sites responding—have been successful.

We considered a second definition of “success.”  Again we assumed respondents would say the benefit exceeded the investment.  In addition, they could cite any “moderate to significant” benefit for either company or union.  In effect, they would say either party derived at least one benefit, and that was worth the investment they had made together.  Approximately 20 mill sites (43.2%) met this less stringent definition of success.

What would have made a difference?  An earlier conclusion points to the answer. Four unachieved benefits that kept cooperative efforts from meeting our stringent success definition were “hard” results for the unions and their members: increased membership, additional jobs, sharing in improvement gains, and improved compensation.  It appears that more explicit attention, by both parties, to those issues as goals for their cooperative efforts would lead to more successful efforts.

Is it the Shoes?

We set out to discover what factors will unequivocally determine the success of a labor-management cooperative effort.  We considered these factors: duration of the effort, its scope, how and why it was initiated, specific obstacles overcome, and level of resources and support.  Analyzing the cooperative efforts that met our definition of success, we found only two factors unequivocally characterize successful cooperative efforts.

First, the successful labor-management cooperative efforts are locally initiated, as distinct from “top-down” efforts begun as corporate or union headquarters initiatives.  Second, successful efforts involve all employees at a site.  They are not restricted to pilot projects or functional silos, nor do they include only mill floor or bargaining unit employees. This does not deny the importance of other factors that demonstrate some influence on success;  but only these two were statistically significant using our data.

And how long does the dance last?  The only statistical relationship between the duration of a cooperative effort and its success is this:  successful efforts take longer.  The average reported duration, including efforts that stopped, was 6.35 years.  Those who stopped dancing did so after 5.28 years.  What’s more, there is no direct relationship between the duration of an effort and the dollar benefits derived.  This may be why it appears that dancing with the bear never ends.

Dancing Lessons

What can we learn from the bears who have danced?  We draw some tentative conclusions from our data.  Some reinforce assumptions that have been part of our work for thirty years.  Some are surprising.  A few, we think, are new and deserve further exploration.

Cooperative efforts are a perishable commodity.  They are about defining, shaping and reinforcing an ever-changing relationship between union and management.  Stretching out a rigid pattern of shoe prints on the floor and expecting all the dancers to follow it is a waste of time.  Inflexible programmatic approaches do not work.

The dance does, indeed, take a considerable commitment of time by both parties.  Each must be willing to take the hard steps as they arise.  In effect, union and management are inventing the dance as it continues.  Cooperative efforts cannot focus simply on a few predetermined topics or issues.  The partners must be willing to tackle new and increasingly complex issues as they arise, within the framework of their improved relationship.

This underscores the importance of carefully defining together at the start the institutional benefits expected from the effort–and paying attention to them regularly and often throughout the dance.  It is not enough to say that improving the company’s performance is benefit enough for employees.  And it cannot be said that “what’s good for the company is good for the union.”  That’s akin to saying one bear dancing well will drag the other along.  The dance is mutual or it’s not a dance.

Because cooperative efforts are so vulnerable to leadership change at the local level, it is critical that companies and unions provide the framework of supporting policy and structures for their efforts.  True, most successful efforts appear to be locally initiated, and rightfully so.  However, their success in the long run will depend on the institutional support that must be established between top union and management leadership.  Beginning and maintaining a cooperative effort is rooted in a fundamental choice both parties make about the relationship between their institutions, not just a cooperative personal relationship between two willing local leaders who will come or go.  Without this institutional support, their dance takes place in a vacuum, and the music can stop at any time.

And the beat goes on…

There are those who still maintain there should be no dance at all.  Bears can’t be trusted, so keep your distance.  They will point to their own limited history to make their case.  As one opposed respondent put it: “This is just a way of saying, ‘Nice bear! Nice bear!’ while you look for a bigger stick.”   However, our survey of union-management cooperative efforts in the US paper industry points another direction.
In a tumultuous industry struggling to compete on a global dance floor, the parties resist cooperation at their mutual peril.  Management continues to hold responsibility for innovation to increase productivity and profitability.  Unions and their members have the capability and power to deliver these outcomes.  On the other hand, unions still retain the responsibility for ensuring the fair and equitable treatment, employment stability, and the economic well-being of their members.  Management has the power to deliver those outcomes.

Neither institution can meet its responsibilities without the other.  They know very well what happens when they continue to work as wary adversaries.  In our view, there is ample evidence from the last thirty years in the US paper industry that a carefully defined and supported cooperative relationship is a more productive alternative.  It’s worth dancing with the bear.

1We used the 2000 Lockwood-Post Industry Directory as our source for industry data and contacts.

2We are grateful to the Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union for their assistance in identifying union survey recipients.

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