Part 2: Trade Unions as Business Partners

I met Thakare almost a year ago. Pradeep Thakare – not his illustrious namesakes from Bandra. Pradeep Thakare. After my retirement, I was meeting many people in Pune Industrial belt to discover the mood and trends in Industrial Relations. Thakare was the ‘union leader’ at Bosch in Pune, and I was waiting to meet him. 

Name and occupation of a person makes you imagine his appearance even before you meet him. I was expecting to meet a rather tall, stocky individual as you see those coming from towns near Pune. Perhaps I expected him to sport handlebar moustaches as do many from Satara and Sangli.

Nothing of this came true. Entered a-not-so-tall, young man of slender built wearing a windcheater, to protect him from wind and chill or perhaps to make a style statement.

Nobody had warned me of the shock I was then going to receive; it was a pleasant shock!

After exchange of pleasantries I started introducing myself, but he cut me short. Thakare interrupted me saying he had seen my web-site and also my profile on LinkedIn. I had not expected this from him. He was prepared for our meeting, having already organised his thoughts. ‘Being ready and prepared’ is the hallmark of Pradeep Thakare, and it gets reflected in his work.

Proactive and unusual steps on productivity improvement

We discussed positive contribution of Trade Unions. The focus of our discussion shifted to productivity. Thakare told me an interesting story. He was told by managers at Bosch that they would introduce MOST [Maynard Operation Sequence Technique], a technique that helps determine standard time of a given operation, thereby helping in productivity improvement. Not satisfied with the training they received in the Company, Thakare and his union committee adopted a very proactive response – They engaged a consultant to train the union committee on MOST! An unusual response by a union to a productivity enhancement plan.

 [pic shows Thakare explaining his Project Report]
Thakare and his ‘comrades’ decided that they must do something positive to change the image of their union. They decided to ‘own’ a production line. They got down to the serious business of improving productivity on their own. They made a project report. [I have seen the report, it is very well documented information about the production operations and it identifies areas for action]. The union committee used many Japanese techniques like Kaizen, Poka-yoke while working on this project. They realised that more contribution will come by ensuring more run time [or less downtime] rather than increasing the output rate. Their project helped them increase the output substantially.

An imaginative scheme: Union returns membership fee!

Thakare moved ahead of many unions; he launched schemes for the benefit of worker-members, and the one with Dena bank takes the cake. He held talks with Dena Bank for a novel scheme. It took him three years to persuade the Bank to accept it. Thakare was worried that the union had good funds – they obtained a monthly contribution of Rs 100 per month per member. The corpus grew, and Thakare was aware of the danger ahead – of mismanagement of funds. Union committees are known, or are tempted, to utilise the funds for their personal gains. This is a very ‘open secret.’ Thakare wanted to avoid it, and also ensure that the extra money is returned to workers. 

Under Thakare’s leadership the union devised and implemented a novel scheme with Dena Bank. From the funds raised by membership fee of Rs 100 pm or Rs 1200 pa, the union buys a personal accident insurance of Rs 5 Lakhs for each member. After deducting apportioned expenses, the amount is divided equally among members and a Fixed Deposit is created in the joint names of each member and the union. This Fixed Deposit is for a period of one year. The interest earned is compounded each year. The worker-members receive the amount when they leave the organisation after completing 5 yrs of membership, or on their retirement. 

This scheme ensures that the union is left with very little fund yet just enough to get its work going. This scheme is in operation for three years already. The workers get unutilised money back and the union gains the trust of all members!

Ahead of Modi: A house for members

And like Vishwa Kalyan Kamgar Sanghatana [see previous blog-post] Thakare and his union committee have also launched a housing scheme. The workers will get a flat at a price of Rs 16 lakhs [approx.] while the market rate is Rs 35 lakhs. The first floor of the building is ready and three more will come up.

Believe it or not!

I met Keshav Gholve in his Union office [once again]! He leads the Thermax Kamgar Sanghatana. For those who have not read my earlier post ‘Industrial Relations – Thermax union way’ on this union here is the link.

It is, they believe, the first union to obtain certification under ISO 9000 – 2008. Their record keeping is simply surprising. They have identified duties of each union office bearer.

The Thermax Union also conducts ‘Workman Satisfaction Survey!’ I feel this may really be the first scored by the union. They circulate a seven question survey questionnaire to determine whether or not the workers are satisfied with the work or achievements of the union.

Many surprising achievements are to their credit, but this one is unbeatable: The Thermax Kamgar Sanghatana has a ‘Quality Policy!’

Here it is:

Scope: Administration of General Labour Affairs

Clause 5.3 Quality policy

“We Thermax Kamgar Sanghatana are enthusiastically involved in the mission of evolving Quality Management System for Company growth, considering workers interest with good industrial relations with Owners/ management and workers for better tomorrow.
In our function, people perceive value of total management and workers satisfaction. Producing ‘Good Working Environment’ asper Management and worker expectations is ultimate solution to achieve it.
Objective of entire team efforts is to establish Thermax Kamgar Sanghatana as a trusted name of total solution in administration of general labour affairs in view by determining and fulfilling workers’ and management requirements.”

[The official English translation provided by the union needs substantial improvement and does not accurately reflect the message of the policy. The original Marathi version is very powerful. See photograph].

The title of these two blog-posts-series suggests that there is a Business Partner role for Trade Unions which some seem to be adopting. We may think of a partner as ‘a person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others, especially in a business or firm with shared risks and profits.In an industrial relations context, it will mean both what a party will do and what they will surely not do, or refrain from doing.

We see ample evidence of this stance in the stories of Bajaj Auto, Bosch and Thermax unions. VKKS [Bajaj Auto workers union] says it will never attack the brand, it will observe self-discipline, or promote multi-skilling. Bosch [Pune] union has actually undertaken productivity studies very systematically. Thermax union has a quality policy. The first sentence [not properly translated in the official English version, so I am providing the appropriate one here] of their Quality Policy says, “Thermax Kamgar Sanghatana is committed to promote harmonious industrial relations between employer and employees and subscribes to the core principle that the interests of employees will be served best by placing the Organisation’s interest above everything else.”

Industrial Relations experts will be reminded of the Toyota stance on Unions which says ‘… both [Management and the Union] should recognize that the prosperity of the company is the common objective and both must use thorough communication in order to resolve any differences of opinions….’ [See ‘Toyota Culture’].

These stories reiterate that there is a huge scope, unexplored in many cases, for collaboration although purists will point out that conflict cannot be altogether eliminated. It is quite common for experts to mention that the relationship between management and unions is like husband and wife. I have never liked that analogy, and no marks for guessing why!

As I was speaking to Keshav Gholve in his Union’s office, I noticed a ‘poster’ on the wall. It said [in Marathi] ‘Management and Union are like a bird’s [Industry] two wings.’ No bird can fly with just one wing. It also represents the new found assertion for ‘equal partner status’ of the unions. 

Is this change going to spread? It should. What say you?

Vivek S Patwardhan

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

See the first post in this series here:

Trade Unions as Business Partners – The Emerging Trend

Also see:

1. Industrial Relations Thermax Union Way

2. Bajaj Auto Union First Steps on a Road Less Travelled.