Innovative Practices in Industrial Relations Part 3

[This write up was prepared for my speech on Nov 4, 2014 at the HR Meet of Hindalco. It is in four parts. The fourth and concluding part will be published on Nov 7, 2014.]
Part 3: Retaining influence on employees [in spite of unions]!
I was invited to address HR Meet of a very reputed company. The audience comprised senior managers. One of them asked me, “How can we not have a union at workplace?” My answer began with a rather rude statement, I am not proud of it, but yet let me state it. “If we ask wrong question we get wrong answer.” I then explained that the real issue was “How to retain influence over our employees in spite of unions.”
There are many ways to do it, but every organisation must find its own way. This issue gains more importance because of two developments – firstly, no organisation can afford IR strife in today’s world, however small it is, and secondly, the possibility for alignment of minds is higher today than ever before.
How have industries responded to this challenge?
Let us take the latest example first. At an ITC factory in Nepal [Surya Nepal P Ltd.] all managers and employees assembled in one room after preparations for two days. They did a group exercise – ‘WorldCafe.’ The preparatory two days were spent with a group of managers and then with other employees preparing for the third day. On the third day all engaged in developing a common answer to a single question: What kind of work culture should we develop in that factory? And how?

[More than 90 employees participated in ‘WorldCafe’ defining work culture to be developed]
This question became important because the factory was a new factory, machines were still being set up and it was yet to begin production which was scheduled about two months later. The MD also shared his thoughts.
Now look at this effort. They wish to align minds at such an early stage. This is an outstanding case of proactive industrial relations. This is how the relationships must be promoted in this millennium. The effort is to be lauded because it is very democratic effort, and it is a proactive effort.
Another sustained effort was by Asian Paints and I am proud of my association with it. Asian Paints published a magazine at its Bhandup Factory – it was a unique effort. The magazine Tutari was published exclusively for workers’ education. It was not a house magazine. 
Why would a business organisation publish a magazine for workers’ education? Because the stated belief was that a well-informed worker will make the right choices. And in order to be well-informed he must be aware not just of business realities but also social and political issues which provide the context for various decisions of the management and the union alike. This magazine was published from 1970 till early 2014 when the Bhandup factory was finally closed.

The magazine carried articles on labour law amendments, various contemporary industrial relations issues. It also carried very innovative stories like the NUMMI plant of Toyota, The case of Fawley productivity agreements, even an article on the Supreme Court’s judgement on obscenity in the case of a novel called ‘Shama’ written by Chandrakant Kakodkar. Obscenity in literature was very burning issue which was handled by the Press then. When Hindustan Lever has a strike at their Sewri Factory, both management and union published voluminous propaganda material. We compiled it and presented it to the workers as a complete case study which emphasised that such extreme situations arise when both the parties are change averse.
The real issue is “How to retain influence over our employees in spite of unions.” There have been some wonderful experiments as I have explained.
While talking about Influencing employees I must mention the effort of Larsen and Toubro with great appreciation.
Sometime in seventies [or was it early eighties?] inter union rivalry shook not just L&T but the entire city of Mumbai. The inter-union rivalry took a very violent turn one day and it led to death of four employees of L&T while they were about to board the company bus. The editor of L&T’s house magazine ‘Powai Pageant’ took a very bold step by publishing their photographs on the front page and a headline asking readers ‘Should this have happened?’ The original question was in Marathi, I have translated it. A bold step considering that fear charged atmosphere prevailed there – in such a case people avoid discussion of such an event or do it in a hush-hush way in very small groups in canteen. Confronting readers with stark and uncomfortable reality was a small but effective step in shaping opinions.
I am not talking about the skills of influencing. I am talking about how imaginatively we can align minds, and that it can be done with spontaneity and systematic working, both.

Relationship is a mirror, it mirrors our persona. It tells people what we stand for and what we do not stand for. It tells people whether we are timid or strong. It tells people whether we are men of conviction and beliefs. And it tells people whether we are sincere in building relationship – with groups and with individuals.

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