Two-Way Communication Creates Partnerships Between Management, Unions

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on March 1, 2001

Labor unions are a formidable force in the U.S. educational system, especially those that represent teachers. But school transportation also has a strong connection with organized labor. It’s estimated that one-third of the country’s approximately 450,000 school bus drivers belong to a labor union. In addition, significant numbers of bus aides, mechanics and office staff also are unionized. For those school districts and contractors that employ unionized transportation workers, a cooperative relationship between management and the union is essential. For those school districts and contractors that don’t have union employees, it’s equally critical that a cooperative relationship is maintained between management and the rank and file — or a union could be in their future. We interviewed several school transportation managers and union representatives across the country to find out how they maintain solid working relationships with their counterparts. Here’s what we discovered.

An honest partnership
Nearly everyone we interviewed said the most important factor in maintaining a good relationship between management and the union is a cooperative effort that stresses open and honest communication. “Eyeball-to-eyeball credibility” is how Paul Keith, area general manager at Laidlaw Education Services in Boston, describes his working relationship with the three unions that represent more than 800 drivers and mechanics. “We keep one another informed,” Keith says. “One of the worse things that a manager can do to a union leader is let the person get blindsided. And vice versa.” The notion that management and union leaders need to watch each other’s backs suggests a partnership more than a reluctant coexistence. “It has to be a cooperative effort because it’s a two-way street,” says Ronn English, human resources director for Laidlaw’s western region office in Walnut Creek, Calif. At the bargaining table, for example, the company and its unions need to know just how far they can go with the contract. “If we bargain to the extent that the wages and benefits exceed what the market will bear, we can bargain ourselves out of the business,” English says.

Can we talk?
In addition to honesty and close partnering, managers and union representatives need to maintain a constant flow of communication. “Open communication is extremely helpful,” says Linda Kresnak, transportation director at Alma (Mich.) Public Schools, where both bus drivers and mechanics are unionized. In addition to biweekly meetings with drivers, Kresnak encourages her employees to engage her in informal discussions. “Rarely is my door shut, unless we’re discussing a confidential matter,” she says. “I try to be very direct and honest with my employees. It’s pretty simple and basic.” Kresnak understands the inner workings of the union that represents her 21 drivers because she was chair of the organization before accepting the position of transportation director two years ago. The transition from union to management was not easy. “I now supervise many of the people that I used to work with,” she says. “So there was a certain amount of mistrust initially, and I had to work to gain back their trust.”

Speed-dial selections
The volume of communication between management and union representatives often depends on the size of the operation. Large school district or contractor programs might employ several hundred union workers and be in nearly constant communication with their representatives. Smaller operations with few union employees could expect less frequent communications. At Pasco County Schools in Port Richey, Fla., more than 500 employees work in the transportation department. Union officials estimate that 43 or 44 percent of these workers belong to the union — the United School Employees of Pasco, an affiliate of the Florida Education Association. That translates into 215 to 220 union employees, including bus drivers, mechanics and office staff. With 200-plus workers represented by the union, it’s not surprising that management and union reps are in frequent contact. “We’re calling the transportation office all the time,” says Louis Orihuela, business representative for the United School Employees of Pasco. “And they don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call us either. The key to the success between our unit and transportation has been wide open communication. If we keep the lines of communication open, most of the issues can be resolved very quickly.” “We can accomplish a lot more working together than we can fighting,” agrees Mike Park, transportation director at Pasco County Schools. “We’re both looking out for the best interest of the employees and the school district.” Orihuela says the union takes great pains to address small and large issues in a timely manner. “There are little things that if you don’t catch early can get in the way of the employees,” he says. For example, the restrooms at some of the district’s six transportation compounds were not unlocked by 5:15 a.m., when drivers start arriving. “These are oversights. But if you have a relationship like we have with the transportation department, then it’s not a problem,” Orihuela says.

Mutual respect
Although management and organized labor occasionally are pitted against one another, especially during contract negotiations, the adversarial relationship does not need to carry over into everyday operations. Several interviewees say the key to preserving a comfortable and productive relationship between management and the union is mutual respect. “Mutual respect goes a long way toward maintaining a good relationship,” says Kresnak. “But it’s also the hardest thing to get from both sides.” “Our differences are handled with mutual respect,” says Park. “In most cases, it’s a disagreement over the interpretation of the language [of the contract].” It helps that the United School Employees of Pasco represents the district’s teachers as well as its bus drivers, mechanics and office workers, Park says, because it understands the big picture in regard to budget constraints. “The union understands that there’s only so much money available,” Park says. “Over the years, the non-instructional employees have pretty much gotten the same increases as the teachers.” “We don’t lie to each other, good news or bad news,” says Keith. “If a commitment is made, we keep it. We respect the process and each other.”

Clear expectations
Union employees, just like all employees, need to have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them. This includes all of their responsibilities, big and small. “The main thing is making clear from the beginning about what’s expected of the employee,” says Sarah Goodwin, transportation coordinator at Northern Humboldt Union High School District in Arcata, Calif. “If you do your job properly, you should never need the union.” Goodwin manages 17 drivers and two mechanics who belong to unions. Of course, expectations should be made clear both for employees and managers. “It’s a two-way street,” says Mark Bruemmer, business agent for Teamsters Local 833 in Jefferson City, Mo. His union recently won the right to represent 152 bus drivers for First Student Inc. in Columbia, Mo., and is in the process of negotiating the contract. “Now they’ll both know what the rules are,” says Bruemmer. “Management will have a set of guidelines so they’ll know where they stand.” In the past, he says, managers played favorites, often passing over more experienced drivers when filling supervisory or safety training positions. “When a bus driver has 23 years of experience, he knows more about safety than someone who has been driving for only three months,” Bruemmer says.

Nothing’s perfect
Even if transportation management and the unions communicate well, are mutually respectful and understand each other’s expectations, there still could be problems and open-ended disagreements. For example, Kresnak at Alma Public Schools says the union protests when she fills in as a substitute driver. “They believe that I’m taking away overtime from their drivers and that I do it intentionally,” she says. “In no way is that the case. I’d much rather be doing my job. When I’m out driving a bus, I’m not able to handle things in the office.” In Florida, which is a right-to-work state, employees don’t have to join the unions. Orihuela of the United School Employees of Pasco says this allows non-union employees to “get a free ride” in regard to the benefits of collective bargaining. (The union contract, including salary schedules, benefits and work rules, apply to all employees.) However, non-union employees are not entitled to union representation in disciplinary matters. “If they screw up, they’re on their own,” Orihuela says. In California, unlike Florida, all employees must join existing unions. Of course, that means they have to pay union dues, regardless of how much they benefit from the union contract. Goodwin says her corps of 17 drivers makes $10 to $15 per hour and works approximately four hours a day. Having the option to join the union, she says, would at least give them a choice about whether they want union dues deducted from their paychecks. “That money could be spent somewhere else,” she says.

Meeting challenges
In Boston, Keith says management and union are acting jointly in the best interests of the employees. As an example, he cites an initiative to provide non–English speaking bus technicians with ESL (English as a second language) training so they can pass ASE certification tests and qualify for salary increases. “I’m meeting with UAW (United Auto Workers) reps to see if we obtain a federal grant to help defray the costs for bringing in ESL instructors,” Keith says. “It’s in the company’s interest that these guys gain the knowledge, and it’s in their own interest that they pass the tests and move up the pay scale. It’s a win-win situation for us and the union. It’s the kind of thing that labor and management can do when they’re being honest with each other.” Working with the union instead of against it is the key to a positive environment, Keith says. “Managers should not be afraid because they have a union. It doesn’t in and of itself constitute the enemy. You have to remember that these are your fellow workers, and they’re working with you to accomplish a mutual goal — safe and efficient transportation of schoolchildren.”

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