Trade Unions as Business Partners – The Emerging Trend?

Hill Harper, the American actor is reported to have said, “We all have different timetables in reaching and realizing that being in healthy partnership is better than being on our own.

Surely he said it in a different context, but I feel that it is very apt for the industrial relations as well.

Think of how the relationship between management of an organisation and the union of employees undergoes changes. All industrial relations managers would have experienced the ‘Form, Storm, Norm, Perform’ stages of building relations. [Read more about these stages here].

[pic shows Dilip Pawar]

The latest organisation to experience this is Bajaj Auto. In a recent seminar Dilip Pawar, the articulate leader of Bajaj Auto Ltd. Company’s workers’ union called “Vishwa Kalyan Kamgar Sanghatana” [VKKS] spoke cheerfully and with enthusiasm about the settlement which the Company and its fallout. One may say that the parties are in their ‘honeymoon’ period, but there were several interesting points to note, and those were not surely lost on the keen observers. Here are some of those points:

Dilip Pawar said that the Union felt that they must change the way their company’s management thought of them; and in order to do it they realised that they had to change themselves first.

While recognising that some conflicts were inevitable, he said that the first step was that nobody ‘cursed’ the management in the gate meetings in the 65 day strike in 2006.

The union leadership realised that with establishments closing down like they experienced in Akurdi factory of Bajaj [you will recall that it was abruptly closed down] or downsizing substantially, it was necessary to ensure that the workers’ families had a second source of income. This led to VKKS actively training women family members to be self-employed. Beginning was made with training a batch of 25 women and it was followed by more batches. Reportedly many women so trained are earning a decent income today.

In 2010 the Chakan employees joined VKKS. By this time the VKKS had realised that they need to gain skills of negotiation and persuasion so they approached Arvind Shrouti of Option Positive for guiding them. They learned a positive approach to industrial relations from Arvind Shrouti. They underwent training in various subjects such as work measurement. VKKS used TPM, RCA [Root Cause Analysis] and ‘Why-Why analysis’ to gain deeper understanding of some of employees’ concerns and to find solutions.

The union committee realised that their member-employees felt the need to own an apartment. VKKS has recently launched an ambitious project which will provide housing to a few hundred workers in a multi-storey building. The plans are ready [and were shown to us]. 

The union also proposes to construct a small Mall which can provide a place for business undertaken by the women family members of an employee!

VKKS embarked on a visioning exercise in 2012 [yes, visioning exercise! You can read the original blog post ‘Bajaj Auto Union: First Steps On a Road Less Travelled’ here].

Their vision included among other things:

Improve Union’s image in the minds of people in general

Empower women

VKKS also defined their policy towards the Company [Wow!] which included among other things:

The Brand will not be attacked even during conflicts.

Observe self-discipline [leaders must be role models]

Workers on high absenteeism will not be chosen as VKKS representatives.

The union will adhere to quality standards, no short cuts.
Respect for all.

Practice transparency in dealings.

Champion multi-skilling. Many representatives are themselves ‘multi-skilled.’

Data based management of VKKS. The union has data pertaining to all employees, and they often talk with facts and figures. [They were able to negotiate lower loan rates and terms for employees who desired to own an apartment in the proposed housing project because VKKS had all data of employees.]

[HR Managers of Bajaj Auto confirmed during informal discussions that the IR climate within Bajaj Auto had substantially improved and was very positive.]

Bajaj Auto and VKKS fought bitter battles. [See blog links given below]. They had “different timetables in reaching and realizing that being in healthy partnership is better than being on [their] own.” The new stance [see vision statements] of the VKKS is not just positive; it almost re-positions VKKS as Business Partner.

A lesson for many unions. Any takers?

Vivek Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Note: One more blog post in this series ‘Trade Unions as Business Partners – The Emerging Trend will be published on Oct 6, 2014.

See also: 
3. Building Employment Relationship at Bajaj Auto