Avoiding Strikes—And Unions

We're an American company that manufactures tools in Asia. Recently, workers at our largest Chinese facility went on strike demanding higher pay, even though we're definitely at the same level as factories around us. How can we avoid this problem in the future? --Ray Lin, Long Beach, Calif.

For starters, you can ask yourself: "What caused this problem in the first place?" Or better yet: "Who caused it?" Because in our experience, whether it's a compulsory union striking a Chinese factory, a Dutch works council threatening a walkout, or a card-signing campaign at a nonunion plant in Ohio, when local labor issues erupt, the trouble can usually be traced not to workplace conditions, but to workplace leadership. In fact, it can often be traced to one or two people: a horse's "neck" of a plant boss or foreman who is being abusive, insensitive, bullying, secretive, or all of the above. In short, bad management most likely caused your strike.

Which is actually good news. Because, to answer your question, it means you can minimize the chances of a future strike by employing plant leaders who are transparent, candid, fair, and respectful. Of course, in China, as everywhere, plant leadership and factory workers won't always agree. There will be honest differences over work rules and the like. But if you insist that your plant managers abide by two straightforward principles, you may find union activity fading away in time. The fact is, with good management, unions aren't really necessary at all.

The first principle is really a mindset: an understanding by management that your workers are your people. They live in the same town, work for the same company. Their lives and futures are entwined with yours. You win or lose together. When plant managers have that mindset, it is much more natural for them to practice the second principle: Give workers a voice and dignity.

Now that may all sound like motherhood and apple pie, corporate pieties that are easy to scoff at, but they are maxims that matter. All employees, not just the ones carrying briefcases, need to be heard. Factory workers in particular need to know they are more to the company than just a pair of hands at a machine. Their ideas count.

How does a plant manager prove that? First by listening, both at forums where workers are encouraged to discuss ways to improve operations, and informally, by walking the floor. Nothing builds resentment like a factory boss standing cross-armed in his glassed-in office, overseeing from on high. Everyone below knows he is missing half of what he needs to know--and is still being paid handsomely.

Plant managers also give workers dignity by communicating with unrelenting candor and transparency. About what? Well, everything. Costs, the competitive situation, growth plans, economic bumps ahead. Most important, plant managers need to let workers know which issues are negotiable and which are untouchable. That information cannot be "revealed" during formal negotiations; such a bomb invariably leads to macho chest-thumping and war.

No, what you need are local plant leaders who are comfortable with dialogue. That builds trust, and ultimately, it is trust that deactivates unions. When managers operate transparently and fairly and workers know it, there is no need for a third party to broker the conversation between them. There is just one team, working together to win.

There's an old saying: "It's not what you know, it's who." How true is that in terms of career success? --Ling Chen, Jiangsu, China

It doesn't matter how true it is. You just cannot let yourself believe it.

Oh, sure, sometimes a person gets ahead because his father used to work with so-and-so or his college roommate was part of this or that family. Connections happen, and when they do, mediocre people can leap forward faster than they deserve. That's discouraging. But the minute you start thinking connections are more important to advancement than brains, positive energy, and hard work, you are signing up for a bad attitude, or worse, our favorite nemesis: self-inflicted victimhood. You start thinking: "It doesn't matter what I do. Some dope out there with a better pedigree has the edge." Not only is that self-defeating, it's just not true. The world is filled with people who started with nothing and used brains and passion to create their own connections.

Put your head in that place and keep it there. The victimhood vortex takes you only one place: down!

By Jack and Suzy Welch

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