Union-Management Cooperation

Larry Price
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Wednesday - November 01, 2006
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Nurses at Kauai’s Wilcox Memorial Hospital have tentatively agreed on a new contract, bringing an end to a bitter four-month-long strike.

About 140 Wilcox nurses went on strike June 24 after failing to win concessions from management to put more nurses on staff.

It was an ugly display of management-labor relations.

As the smoke clears, the lead negotiators say the union’s bargaining committee is supporting management’s offer. After the nurses vote on the offer, hopefully, a new kind of bargaining will be discussed.

During the strike the hospital was operating with about 40 replacement nurses, including some flown in from the Mainland.

The obvious question at this point is not whether the nurses ratified the new contract and what the small print stipulated, it’s whether management and labor can now move forward.

The record shows that labor peace has not been ideal at Wilcox hospital for some time. There have been two other strikes at Wilcox in recent decades: In 1987, a nurses’ strike lasted 10 days, while a nurse’s strike in 1975 dragged on for six weeks.

It’s obvious that there is a problem that needs to be addressed: a need for increased union-management cooperation.

Equally obvious is that labor relations practices at Wilcox have been adversarial over the years, whether it’s organizing, bargaining over wages, adequate staffing, or disputing contract interpretations.

A new school of thought on bargaining believes there is a new era of union-management cooperation on the horizon. It’s called interest-based bargaining. It is highlighted by community-based labor-management committees, employee involvement programs, gain sharing, and work and organization redesign.

Someone with the authority should at least consider the possibility for Wilcox hospital. If they don’t, in another four or five years the residents of Kauai will in all probability experience another labor strike.

There is strong and convincing evidence that the supply of labor and union power has been altered by several waves of immigration. And while the Railway Labor Act, Norris-LaGuardia Act and Wagner Act gave the unions the ability to organize, the Taft-Hartley Act and LandrumGriffin Act gave the employer additional powers, leaving the unions with much less power to negotiate. Nowadays, an adversarial relationship is expected by most management and union leaders.

In today’s labor market there is less of a need for lower-skilled union members. We have just witnessed how a global labor market can directly affect the survival of some employees and their jobs. Those who have survived and prospered have changed their approaches to each other considerably.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of room for union-management understanding to flourish. There can’t be many people who expect the hard feelings between management and labor to disappear after walking on a picket line for four months. Management must realize that unionization is a degree of control, because the employer can no longer unilaterally decide wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment.

Since neither side can change the law, it is in the best interest of both sides to work on some kind of union-management cooperation and lessen the adversarial relationship in their bargaining strategy that has made joint problem solving so difficult at Wilcox.

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