The labor-management issue is on the short list of every company's concerns when moving to a new area or remaining in an existing location, because it can make the difference between a thriving business and a faltering one.
The issue was topmost in the minds of local leaders in the mid-1980s, when Louisville suffered from the editorial stigma of being dubbed "Strike City" in a 1982 article in The Wall Street Journal.
Although many disputed the claim, saying the labor climate had improved, the moniker was troubling enough to prompt officials to cite labor-management relations as a serious need that could use help from the University of Louisville.
That was the impetus for forming the U of L Labor-Management Center, says director Carrie Donald '72G, '75L.
To some traditionalists, the words labor and management should not be linked by that hyphen. To them, the well-being of both parties is an issue only for contract renewal time, the classic difficult spot between the proverbial rock and the hard place.
Walking the line between management and labor-and encouraging others that the path is not only worth the trouble but also vital for the economic future-is a daily task for Donald. There's no place she'd rather be, although it is a long way from the special education teacher she set out to become.
"People who are practitioners in the labor area have a much closer relationship (now) than when the center was formed," Donald says, acknowledging that some of the progress is due to the improved economy. "They are more likely to address issues jointly and call upon one another for assistance. There's been a major change in attitude."
In some workplaces that new relationship has to begin at the most basic level-guiding supervisors and rank-and-file workers in regarding each other as partners rather than adversaries.
Donald cited the success of one of the center's communications skills training sessions at a western Kentucky workplace. After the sessions, a union trainee reported that his supervisor told him "good morning" for the first time in 20 years. In later conversations with the supervisor, the worker learned that they had much in common. Although the gesture may seem small, it shows how slight changes can transform attitudes and improve relations, Donald says.
Much of the center's training is intended to bring union members and management into a full partnership to improve the work environment and the company's productivity and quality.
For example, a Louisville company that had invested time and money converting to a system-based management style and a "total quality environment" was having trouble because union leaders did not agree with the approach, fearing it would hurt rank-and-file members.
The company encouraged the union to work with U of L Labor-Management Center staff to develop its own strategic plan and identify goals and objectives instead of reacting to individual situations. As the union developed its plan, leaders concluded that their goals for the company's well-being largely mirrored those of management. The result is that the union and management now have a true partnership, with important decisions made jointly, Donald says.
Established in 1986, the center is guided by an active advisory board of vocal members who pitch in to spread the word-unsugarcoated-that labor-management cooperation is essential to the economic future of business, industry, and government.
"The center, in a relatively short time, has been able to establish credibility. We owe a great deal of that to the advisory board," Donald says. "They help us in programming, with ideas... It's important to them that the center succeed."
Al Kirkpatrick, the advisory board's management co-chair, says the panel constantly strives for fairness.
"Everyone on the board is a professional in this area," Kirkpatrick says. "The board cannot be viewed as either pro-labor or pro-management and still be effective. We work really hard at that."
The center's mission is to assist in improving labor-management relations in Kentucky's unionized sector by conducting interdisciplinary programs of teaching, research, and service.
Those research issues have included sexual harassment among government workers, case studies of prominent unionized workplaces, tobacco workers' union history, employee involvement programs, and an opinion survey on Kentucky's child labor laws. This academic year will include a study of the level of unionization in the Greater Louisville area.
"Carrie has a very good understanding that government can be a partner with the academic community," says Gary Moberly, executive director of the Labor Cabinet's labor-management relations office and an ex-officio Labor-Management Center advisory board member. "I can tell you the stock in trade is our neutrality... Carrie is a well-respected neutral in addition to her academic credentials."
Although much of the center's training occurs in the Louisville area, its programs go on the road with sessions throughout Kentucky. "When we go out in the state, we try to jointly sponsor programs with people in the area. We usually work with labor-management committees," Donald says.
Accomplishing workplace change takes a special commitment, in the view of Dewey Parker, director of education for the state AFL-CIO.
"The bottom line is a social issue-to better the work environment. Labor-management groups aren't looking at bottom lines; they're looking at relationships," Parker says. "Carrie's concerns in the labor-management arena are from the heart."
Donald's involvement in the labor-management world evolved from the lure of the classroom. "I was interested in education, and I still am," she says. "My first emphasis was teaching children with special needs."
At the time she began teaching, changes were occurring in education. "The focus was on the legal aspects and rights of children with disabilities," she says.
Donald has worked in that area as a hearing officer for the Kentucky Department of Education a neutral person called upon when school districts and parents have disputes over the placement of children with disabilities.
After obtaining her bachelor's degree in history at Indiana University and her teaching certificate, Donald taught for seven years while she worked on her master's degree in education and her law degree at U of L.
During her last year in law school, she conducted research for U of L Professor William Dolson that piqued her interest in labor-management relations. Later, as a U of L labor law lecturer, she also worked with the late Dee Akers, director of the Government Law Center at U of L, tracking and analyzing legislation and community and government affairs projects.
At that time, then-President Donald Swain was seeking ideas from the community about how the university best could serve its publics. "One major area identified was assistance in promoting better labor-management relations," Donald says. "President Swain took that idea (and) formed a working group of leaders, which resulted in the formation of the center."
Donald's academic interests came together in a job at the new center, where she served as assistant professor and researcher for the first director, John Remington. She succeeded him as acting director and then director as the center became part of the College of Business and Public Administration. She teaches courses in administrative law, human resources management, arbitration, and equal employment.
Donald places interns in the labor-management track of CBPA's master of public administration program. Those human resources jobs with companies or unions allow students to research issues and be exposed to the day-to-day challenges of putting theories into practice.
She hopes advances will also come from the Labor-Management Center's inclusion in the Challenge for Excellence, U of L's 10-year academic improvement plan, which targets investment in the university as a research center and metropolitan resource. The center is identified in the challenge as an area of developing university strength in entrepreneurship and economic development.
"It recognizes the importance of the center to students and the community in assisting labor and management in research, programming, and other services," she says.
Donald and others stress the advantages of the center's affiliation with U of L. "There are labor-management centers that are not university-based, but (without) a university connection, their funding, quality of programming, and status of research is less predictable," says Donald.
As the center extends its offerings, "we've become a full-service entity," says Terry Vollmer, the center's labor specialist. "We're kicking it up to a level of activity that is ambitious and, I think, fairly successfully fulfilled."
One indicator of that success is the willingness of companies and union representatives to turn to U of L for help.
"That they feel free to bring problems here is indicative of the good job we're doing," Vollmer says. "Our advisory board and the companies and unions have been completely supportive. Within the labor-management practice community, we're there."
Deciding it was time to share good news about successful workplaces, the University of Louisville Labor-Management Center and its advisory board established the annual Labor-Management Award to spotlight companies in which unions and management cooperate.
Winners are chosen by a panel representing several sectors, including economic development, labor, and management. The 1998 winners are the Louisville Water Company and Local 1683 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The company and union pledged through their August 1995 partnership agreement to overcome adversity in relationships and to build a team with cooperative labor-management relations. At management's behest, union members participate in all levels of decision-making, choosing to plan rather than react.
Previous winners were: