The Union Solution

The Washington Post
By David Osborne

Most people who want to improve government’s performance in this country think unions are part of the problem, not part of the solution. But an increasing number of leaders–managers, elected officials and union officials–are showing there is another way.

Consider Ohio’s Gov. George Voinovich and the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. Back in 1990, when Voinovich ran for governor, OCSEA opposed him. A Republican and former mayor of Cleveland, Voinovich had fought a state law to allow collective bargaining in government. He began his first contract negotiations as governor by handing OCSEA a long list of “take away” demands.

Union director Paul Goldberg went toe to toe with the administration over the new contract. But in the six years since, Voinovich and Goldberg have put together a labor-management partnership that has unleashed tens of thousands of state employees. Using “total quality management” methods pioneered by business, they are creating a tidal wave of small but significant changes.

Nearly 50,000 workers have attended three-day training sessions to learn quality improvement methods. And more than 1,000 teams of employees have undertaken specific improvements–many with nice payoffs:

  • A “Bureaucracy Busters” team in the workers’ compensation office cut telephone busy signals from 50,000 a month to zero and the average “on hold” wait from 10 minutes to a minute and a half
  • A team in the transportation department saved $200,000 by reducing the amount of time snow plow trucks had to travel to get salt to spread on icy roads
  • A mental health team saved $1.5 million in the treatment of schizophrenia patients, while improving the treatment’s success rate
  • Another team streamlined the process for preparing and approving travel expense reports — saving $510,000 annually.

A National Trend

Ohio is one of the best examples of labor-management partnership in government, but it is hardly the only one. While union ranks in the private sector have thinned for years, union membership has grown to 38 percent of the local, state and federal government work force. More and more public managers realize they can’t improve performance without union cooperation.

Last year a task force commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor documented 50 different examples of workplace partnerships in state and local government — from Phoenix and Seattle to Indianapolis and Portland, Maine.

The shift to cooperation is even more pronounced in the federal government. A labor-management partnership begun in the mid-1980s at the Ogden, Utah, Internal Revenue Service center reduced payment error rates, shortened turnaround times and saved $11 million over a five-year period.
Inspired by this and other examples, Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review recommended in 1993 that every federal agency establish a labor-management partnership council–and President Clinton issued an executive order requiring it. One positive impact, according to Federal Labor Relations Authority Chair Phyllis Segal, was a two-year drop of 28 percent in unfair labor practice filings.

In The Same Boat

In Ohio, Goldberg and Voinovich began their odd-couple partnership because they realized they needed each other. They were in the same boat, and it was sinking.

Goldberg, who wanted to protect his members’ jobs, was worried that Voinovich would contract work out to private companies. So he pushed for a chance to prove his people could do better.

Meanwhile, Voinovich was looking for answers to the state’s fiscal squeeze. He wanted to increase efficiency and improve services without raising taxes. So he borrowed a quality management initiative that Xerox had used to turn itself around.

To kick things off, Voinovich invited Goldberg and leaders of the four other state employee unions to collaborate with his management team. The labor leaders told the governor they would work with him, but only if they had a real say in every step of the process. Voinovich agreed. But when quality management training for top managers began, most union officials were left out. This fueled their suspicion that Voinovich’s managers didn’t really want to give up control.

The managers didn’t “understand what we meant by partnership,” says Goldberg. “They thought, `We’ll let the union know what we’re going to do, so they can get their members lined up.'”

At a special training session at Xerox’s Rochester, N.Y. facility, Goldberg complained about the way the unions were being treated. “Most of the cabinet folks started snickering,” he says. “You know, there goes Goldberg again.” But Xerox officials emphasized how valuable their union had been in implementing quality management. That caught Voinovich’s attention.

“The governor raised his hand,” says Goldberg. And when he was called on, he said, “I think we’ve been going about this all wrong.” Soon after, Voinovich created a steering committee with five union leaders and five agency directors. Nothing could happen unless both sides agreed.

This helped convince Goldberg that the governor understood what it took to be a partner. “He gets it,” the union leader says.

Still, there was one more hurdle. The unions feared that once employees boosted their organizations’ efficiency, they would be laid off. “Our people had to be assured that this was not just a device to use their intellects and then discard them like old typewriters,” says Goldberg. Voinovich promised that improvements would not lead to work force reductions–and he wrote the pledge into the OCSEA contract.

Bumps In The Road

Even after it began to rack up success stories, the partnership had its rough spots. When Voinovich ran for re-election in 1994, the union opposed him again. But the governor won easily and the partnership survived.

Then a department director announced a plan to downsize his department, outsourcing or eliminating some functions. Goldberg fumed that the plan violated the no-layoff agreement; he was tempted to tell Voinovich to “take your partnership and shove it.” The director insisted his plan was not part of the partnership initiative and so was not subject to the guarantee.

Goldberg relented. The union helped managers design the downsizing plan, and in the end, there were fewer layoffs than the union had feared.

During contract negotiations this January, both sides went back to their traditional adversarial behavior. This is inevitable for unions, Goldberg says, because they need some clout when the pie is being cut up. “It isn’t all done with fairness and equity. You don’t give up all your weapons.”

Bargaining time is the “crazy season,” adds Steve Wall, the governor’s point man on the quality initiative. “But as soon as the contract is negotiated, we’ll be back to business as usual.”

As the partnership survives these bumps, the bonds of collaboration grow stronger. Every year, for instance, the governor and his cabinet join union leaders for a retreat to assess how the partnership can be improved. The partners also go hand in hand to the legislature to lobby for funds to train workers in quality management.

Several months ago, they held a celebration for the employee improvement teams. More than 2,000 workers and managers crammed into a convention center with exhibits prepared by 130 teams.

“Employees working together to improve customer service is no longer the exception to the rule in Ohio state government,” Voinovich announced. “It is the way we do business.”

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