Labor-Management Relations

Nov. 1, 2003
I have been a student of labor-management relations for many years, initially as a union leader, then a manager and chief executive officer. The two parties working together to find common ground has always been important to me. The way the workforce and management interact has a direct impact on the quality of service the customers receive, internally and externally. There cannot be a better reason for us to put emphasis on labor-management relations, a critical issue within the organization.

The relationship between management and the workforce impacts everything the organization does. This includes ongoing work responsibilities, efforts revolving around response to terrorism, and even addressing the budget crisis much of the fire service is currently facing. It is very difficult for a service organization, like a fire department, to consistently provide a high level of service to outside customers if it can't service the internal needs and issues relating to each other.

What happens on the inside of the organization directly impacts the quality of service delivered outside the organization, as well as the organization's ability to address significant problems; there is simply no getting around this reality. An organization cannot consistently deliver quality service in spite of itself; it cannot outperform its own self-image.

It seems that more chief officers and union officials are putting emphasis on building and maintaining a positive labor-management environment. To be effective, this relationship must exist within a culture that encourages the processing of conflict. It is through conflict that many significant improvements in organizations, systems, programs and services emerge. Reasonable people disagreeing without making it personal, and the processing of that disagreement, can enhance organizational performance. This concept is at the root of progressive labor-management relationships that are based on the values of mutual trust, mutual respect and common goals.

In addition to formal contract negotiations and administration, interactions between labor and management fall within the following areas of work:

  • Defining the mission and culture
  • Joint planning
  • Developing policies and procedures
  • Joint problem-solving involving personnel issues and other programs
  • Interacting with elected officials, other opinion leaders, and the community as a whole

Fire departments have a rich history of working in groups or teams. Establishing a labor-management oversight team, and assigning task groups that are co-chaired to work on issues on behalf of the oversight team, should fit naturally into the overall fire service culture, but for some reason, in some cases, it doesn't. Perhaps it doesn't fit because it's not valued, and it's not valued because of an inherent attraction by some leaders to traditional labor-management roles, a lack of trust, egos and an overall disrespect for each other in the process. Many times, when labor and management are struggling with each other, there is more than enough blame to go around.

So what's the point? The relationship between the workers and managers in an organization is critical to service excellence, internally and externally. In addition to having a major impact on service, it also defines the way opinion leaders locally, regionally, at the state level and nationally view the professionalism of the fire service. This perception, positive or negative, impacts our collective influence politically and from a public policy standpoint.

If someone wanted to disrupt, dominate or neutralize a group of people, the first thing he or she might try to do is get the group fighting internally. That would keep them busy on their own stuff and they wouldn't have the collective power to mess with other people's stuff. It might then be easy to divert resources and attention to other influential constituencies rather than dealing with those that can't agree on what they collectively want in the first place.

Fire department leaders should come together as labor and management to focus on areas of agreement. I'm not just referring to the career service, unions and paid managers, I'm also talking about volunteers and non-union paid departments. We won't always get along, nor will we always agree with each other on all issues. However, if every significant issue is overshadowed by internal and external backbiting, by someone who has to be completely right and therefore someone completely wrong, or by someone who has to appear smart and therefore someone appear dumb, then the fire service, from the standpoint of local, state and national influence, will operate at a disadvantage. Influence overall starts at the local level, and local starts internally.

If you are a worker or manager who has figured this out (and many have), I salute you. If you haven't, perhaps you might rethink your actions and attitudes. When a lot of goofiness is occurring within our ranks, we all look goofy. We have huge fish to fry and a lengthy list of issues. We are fortunate that firefighting is a very respected service - and if we could get our collective interaction and influence balanced with this collective positive image, we might make more gains than ever before.

It is through this internal partnership that the fire service could achieve greater influence, and thus greater success. Organizations that have leaders within labor and management that work to establish and maintain a positive, productive relationship as a key organizational value are very fortunate. Once in place, it requires the commitment and determination of the leadership to sustain it. We should all work to ensure that we leave behind a legacy of cooperation, influence, and a more positive, productive, capable, and healthy fire service. Thanks for your efforts towards accomplishing this.

Dennis Compton, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of the When In Doubt, Lead! series of books, as well as many other articles and publications. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) reference book Managing Fire and Rescue Services. He serves as a national advocate and executive advisor for fire service and emergency management issues and organizations. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and assistant fire chief in the Phoenix Fire Department, where he served for 27 years. He is past chair of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

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