Keeping Peace While Managing Unions

Dealing with unions often poses challenges to engineers

By Dirk Willard, contributing editor

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“Get the plant up by noon or you’re fired!” Dan, the plant superintendent, yelled from the base of the scrubber. My two union electricians had disappeared; they were in the midst of a slowdown. As management wrote the contract, process engineering was empowered to do “whatever was necessary” to get the plant going after a shutdown. The union interpreted this statement differently.

To them, this meant only software, not hardware. This left engineering sandwiched uncomfortably in the middle. Sadly, this typifies many confrontations between management and labor.

No, I didn’t get fired. After three days of trouble, I’d planned ahead — I stashed a calibrator. By the time the electricians returned from their extended lunch break, I’d zeroed and tuned three transmitters. Seeing the plant starting up, one of the electricians shook a finger at me and shouted: “You’re stealing my job.” “Then, do your damn job,” I snapped. They filed a grievance. Plant management was behind me. Other engineers haven’t been as fortunate.

Managing unions, and labor in general, is one of the biggest challenges facing engineers — yet one for which few receive proper training. Management isn’t always helpful. One engineer at a large beverage company groused about the fuse blowing in his office. The union thought it was funny.

Finally, in frustration, he changed the fuse himself, winning a stern lecture from his boss: he would be fired if the union filed a complaint about him again.

In most union interactions, it may be best to handle things informally. Relatively new to the plant, I worked hard to win the electricians’ support. It helped that they worked directly for me, an instrument/process engineer. I got to know them, arranging informal or tacit agreements on such things as calibrating new instruments for the first time — so I could write the procedure. My boss and I worked cooperatively to reduce their frustration by improving organization and training. Despite a strike looming on the horizon, we worked peacefully with the union because we showed we cared about the team and we took time to work out agreements. Interactions are about people, not organizations.

Some gulfs aren’t so easily bridged. Unions, like other big organizations, don’t willingly admit that they’re not up to every challenge. Skilled labor is scarce, which affects plant outages and capital projects. After failing to meet deadlines, our company brought in several non-union shops.

My approach was somewhat different. Whenever possible, I gave the union first dibs at small capital projects and others under my control. I was always happy with the craftsmanship. I complimented people whenever they deserved it. I also was free with my complaints, patiently detailing problems and allowing workers a chance to make amends. Transparency isn’t always possible; on one occasion, I snuck in a contractor during lunch for a bid walkthrough. As the saying goes, it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

When it came to plant outages and large capital projects, an influx of additional labor caused problems. Tensions grew as the outage loomed on the horizon. Acts of sabotage appeared. In one case, flange bolts on a chlorine line were loosened. In another — a near miss accident for me — a stainless steel purge line sprung from an instrument swag coupling during an inspection and nearly took off my nose. Such “accidents” aren’t random. We were forced to hire security guards to protect construction.

This is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, construction was delayed for a California refinery because someone had dropped ball bearings in the conduit laid by a non-union contractor. When the cables were pulled, they were destroyed.

During a union strike at a plant where I worked, engineers pulled double-duty to fill in at positions vacated by the workers — engendering the wrath of the union, including physical threats and damage to personal property. This wasn’t limited to the facility. My car was keyed. The company never offered reimbursement of any kind.

It’s easy to become angry or frustrated in dealing with unions. Communication can become strained, which increases the danger of accidents and unnecessary plant downtime. “How much do I tell them?” was always on my mind. During training seminars I pondered the question: While I am teaching someone how to run a plant aren’t I also teaching them about its vulnerabilities? Hazard and operability studies and other safety reviews produce similar concerns. I’ve found it best to avoid worrying about this problem.

Communication is about exchanges between individuals. Goodwill is still possible if you’re willing to ignore the acts of a few bad apples and build bridges over gaps dividing people. Thinking back on those days, I remember that my best worker was also the union shop steward. He chastised the grumblers in our crew once I won him over to my side.

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