Labor of Love
How can colleges and universities institute a proactive, team-based approach to labor management? For starters, lay the groundwork for good relationships between union leaders and management and implement programs that motivate and move employees forward. That's the approach Princeton University has taken during the past two decades, where continuous focus on labor relations is paying off in worker productivity and commitment.
At Princeton, where unionized labor accounts for upwards of 20 to 25 percent of the institution's employee population, the focus has been to develop the framework and capacity for everyone to accomplish their roles in an environment that provides a sense of fairness and satisfaction for all, says Lianne Sullivan-Crowley, vice president for human resources. She and Pierre Joanis, director of labor relations, are quick to note that they aren't necessarily breaking new ground at Princeton. Many of the same strategies they've enacted are likewise in place at peer institutions. Yet, Princeton's holistic approach has gained a reputation and kudos within higher education circles, evidenced by ongoing requests from other institutions for Sullivan-Crowley and Joanis to share their expertise and practical experiences. Among the critical factors they cite for building an environment of trust and cooperation with unionized labor is to focus on transparency at all levels and to equip managers to be proactive partners in relationship building and negotiations.
Turning Challenge to Opportunity
One hallmark of Princeton's success has been to take on key labor challenges faced by many institutions and respond full force with real solutions.
Challenge: Underemployment. Colleges and universities have traditionally hired some workers for uneven time frames because certain business functions do not operate at full capacity year-round. Dining facilities offers a prime example. When students go home for the summer and the need for kitchen staffing trails off, these employees are often left to fill in their employment gap elsewhere. During the past decade, more institutions have begun to recognize that if they're going to provide a top-notch living experience for students, then the kind of service-level people they attract to these positions is critical, says Sullivan-Crowley. "We need to find ways to transition employees to 12-month positions or create programs to enhance their employment experience so that we not only attract customer service-savvy employees, but also keep them."
Solution: Transition jobs to year-round. This concept continues to gain momentum at Princeton, notes Joanis. Whereas in past years, the institution has converted a handful of jobs each year to 12-month positions, during the past 24 months he has supported the conversion of another 24 jobs to year-round employment. "This has required partnership and commitment with department managers and thinking creatively with them to assess their work needs, workflow, and how to address the skill deficiencies of employees who are offered an expanded role," says Sullivan-Crowley.
Challenge: Underutilization. Related to the problem of underemployment is the number of lower-level positions filled by employees with higher-level qualifications that go underutilized, says Joanis. "The nature of some back-of-house operations in particular, such as dishwashers, is that these jobs are often filled by new immigrants who may have little or no English skills. In some cases, these were high-level professionals in their home countries, but here they take whatever positions for which they can qualify." The dilemma for some institutions may be that they haven't figured out how to engage recent immigrants or don't have programs in place to help them grow into higher-level positions or to excel with new skill sets, says Joanis.
Solution: Training and apprenticeship. This challenge requires a commitment from top leadership to provide development opportunities to help workers transition to more suitable employment within the institution, says Sullivan-Crowley. The university's "Excelling at Princeton" program is one example of how the institution seeks to move employees forward. The program allows employees to take paid time off during the workday to attend math, writing, ESL, and business communications classes on campus through a partnership with Mercer County Community College. Workers who complete the program are presented with a diploma by Princeton's president and provost. Princeton also offers a three-month summer transfer/internship program that creates a pathway for lower-level service workers to obtain higher-level skills to transition to skilled trade jobs such as electricians and plumbers. According to Joanis, the university is looking to enhance the institution's summer transfer program by adding more opportunities for workers to spend time in other departments and units within the university as a way to learn new skills and to complement the summer transfer program with full-year apprenticeship programs.
Challenge: Undercompensation. Among the issues that can ignite students and faculty groups are concerns about paying employees a living wage, notes Joanis. "Institutions that are proactive on this front and on work-life balance issues will head off many complaints."
Solution: Fair wages, merit pay. Unlike many institutions, Princeton has implemented a merit pay system in its union contracts. Union employees get personnel evaluations and performance-based increases in the same manner as non-union employees, explains Sullivan-Crowley. As of July 2008, the university raised its minimum wage for regular employees from $11.96 to $14 per hour. Merit pay increases are on top of that new base wage, notes Sullivan-Crowley. Joanis argues that the university's commitment to fair wages and a merit pay system are cost effective because these are tools that keep employees motivated and improve attendance, timeliness, and commitment to the institution. "We start with market-leading pay, which sets us apart, and then provide employees with opportunities to further grow and earn additional monetary recognition." The well-above-market compensation is on top of the same health and retirement benefits plan offered to non-union faculty and staff.
Foremost, employers know that employees who are happy will be more loyal and productive. A second linchpin of a successful labor relations business model is developing strong relationships between union leaders and university managers, says Sullivan-Crowley. She and Joanis attribute Princeton's successful program to current institution leaders and to Joanis's predecessor, Fred Clark, to whom they credit years of proactive work to build strong relations with unions and to foster frequent and healthy communication between union leaders and university managers.
During his tenure, Joanis has seen labor-management interaction move beyond talking about positions to discussing mutual interests and the best approaches for accomplishing common goals. Developing strong and productive relations does not require a large budget, but it does take time and ongoing commitment, notes Joanis. Sullivan-Crowley and Joanis offer several recommendations from their experience for institutions looking to strengthen their relations with labor leaders and employees by bolstering involvement of university management.
- Encourage managers to hone or acquire additional language skills. In the same way that ESL programs may be important for some employees, multiple language skills for supervisors and HR personnel prove highly beneficial in communicating with non-English-speaking employees.
- Work with managers to explore how transitioning nine-month positions to year-round employment could benefit workers and the department alike. At Princeton, as more managers have witnessed these successful transitions, others are jumping on board, notes Sullivan-Crowley. For those managers who need convincing, suggest they begin by tracking something specific such as employee timeliness and attendance, says Joanis. "Establishing some baseline metrics can provide a foundation for managers to see what would improve with stronger employee commitment."
- Consider bringing managers and union leaders to conferences to participate and learn together. For Princeton, this has proven to be a great way to reach common understanding about a range of issues, such as what constitutes a grievance, says Joanis.
- Institute a joint labor management system. At Princeton, union leaders and university managers take turns setting the agenda and leading the meetings in alternating months. HR participates solely as a resource to both parties.
- Address issues before they become problems. Joanis implemented an annual retreat with university managers and the union leadership to track workforce metrics, discuss grievances, and brainstorm approaches to improving labor relations.
- Leverage external resources. Too often institutions may turn to external mediators when relationships are at the point of breaking down. Instead, Princeton has assumed a proactive stance, routinely tapping external sources to help maintain positive relationships through facilitated discussions about alternative dispute resolution and effective listening as well as employee engagement and development.
- Provide managers with the training and development they need to lead. Two specific opportunities in place at Princeton include a class on managing in a union environment and a class about the legal rights of union stewards and how to interact effectively with them. In addition, the university offers a management certificate program open to anyone who wants to learn or retool with regard to the skills needed to effectively manage people.
Karla Hignite, principal of KH Communication, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons. E-mail: email@example.com.