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Guest Editorial

A costly disconnect

By Woodruff Imberman, Phd.

Stamping companies and “metal benders” of all types are awakening to an unfortunate fact: although unions lost their battle in Congress for the Employee Free Choice Act—the “card-check” unionization law—they are winning the war to easy organizing with Craig Becker’s appointment to the National Labor Relations Board.

President Obama gave Becker an interim appointment to the NLRB in February, 2010, after it became obvious the Senate would not approve him. During debates, Senator Ben Nelson (D-NEB), said, “…Mr. Becker’s previous statements strongly indicate that he would take an aggressive personal agenda to the NLRB…”

The NLRB is the quasi-judicial agency charged with administering the 1935 Wagner Act. That created a system of industrial democracy and governs the country’s labor relations. The law’s sponsor, Senator Robert Wagner of New York, said secret ballot elections were the linchpin of American democracy and would work in industrial settings too. The Wagner Act gives employees the right to vote if they want to be represented by a union.

Commonly called the National Labor Relations Act, the law is administered by members of the NLRB. Appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate, they decide the detailed rules governing union and management behavior and how elections should be conducted. The NLRB has always tried to balance the often conflicting interests of unions, employers, and employees. Over the years, it has done a pretty good job—those who complain have almost invariably lost their elections.

Avoiding potential problems
Astute stamping company executives realize the best way to avoid these hassles with employees is to treat their employees fairly so they don’t want a union in the first place. These managers understand that money is not the real reason employees seek out unions. Rather, workers want unions because they believe they are not being treated fairly, openly and honestly—without partiality or favoritism.

Some executives in companies whose business is forming metals have been shocked when they receive an NLRB letter saying a union has filed an election petition for their workers. These executives have misread employee attitudes because they had not taken the time to obtain an expert assessment of their plant floor sentiments.

The first step to avoid such unpleasant surprises is to test the temperature on the plant floor, for example, in the shears department by the presses or at the rollform lines. Taking the temperature of employee attitudes cannot be done with a simple paper-and-pencil employee audit many attorneys recommend. Those surveys rarely uncover the nuances of employee thinking, especially of those who come from foreign countries and have different cultural heritages.

The best way to understand employee attitudes is through face-to-face interviews by unbiased outside experts. Workers will speak more openly to an outsider than to any member of management for fear of retribution. Also, the ability to discern what employees actually mean by what they say is critical takes a good deal of experience and requires knowledge of industrial practices in metal forming companies.

The next step is to make the necessary changes to eliminate irritants to employee morale. This often requires supervisory training tailored to the specific problems of a particular company. Canned training purchased off the internet is inexpensive, but usually ineffective. According to the article “How To Train Across Cultures,” supervisors from different cultural heritages may consider verbal input from employees as challenges to their authority. “They need training to understand that explaining the reasons for orders often increases employee enthusiasm for fulfilling them,” according to the article published in Industrial Management Magazine.

The great recession during the last two years has adversely affected virtually every company supplying metal stampings and roll forms to end users in the automotive, office equipment, consumer durable and off-the-road construction equipment industries. Since purchasers of springs, washers, specialty fasteners, and shapes are desperate to cut costs, only the most efficient metal stamping and roll form suppliers with the best employee morale, productivity and lowest costs will survive.

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