I'VE HEARD SO MANY TIMES THAT CHANGE CAN'T BE ACHIEVED OR CERTAIN COMPANY GOALS CAN'T BE ACCOMPLISHED because a company has a union. But I don't buy into that line of reasoning. When working with unions, a win-win partnership approach is the best way to make progress. When you think about it, treat these partnerships as you would any family relationship where you look for common grounds to address tough issues.
Edwin Hill, president of IBEW International, constantly challenges his membership to be a driving factor in the success of the companies it serves, because the strength of the companies is good for the IBEW. I was asked to share a few of the benefits of developing a true partnership with the IBEW in achieving what matters in the long run.
GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE
In 2001, KCP&L identified the need to improve its safety record. At that time, the company's relationship with the local unions was at best apathetic, and at worst antagonistic. A different approach was urgently needed. Both the company and the union agreed to rally around the common interest of improving safety. Knowing that trust is built one day at a time, the organization decided to put aside discipline for safety infractions until open and honest discussion could identify the root causes and necessary steps needed to improve the safety record. There were many initiatives put into place the first year that resulted in our OSHA incident rate dropping from 8.7 to 4.3. By 2008, the incident rate had been reduced to 1.9 and a strong safety culture had emerged.
LEVERAGING TRUST TO KEEP JOBS
KCP&L had two boring machines, but work rules prevented work to be done across service center boundaries. So management and union leadership agreed to eliminate these boundaries and assign permanent crews wherever the machines were needed. Shared work between centers resulted in reducing contractor spending by 26% and overtime by 19% in the first year. These results would not have been achieved without a true partnership approach on behalf of both the company and union.
For many utilities, the aging workforce is a concern. KCP&L found that 50% of our apprentices dropped out before becoming journeymen, making our training program inefficient and costly. So, our Joint Apprentice Training Committee, comprised of management and bargaining unit employees, developed a pre-apprentice program, or boot camp. The results are impressive. Today, 90% of apprentices complete the program. With a consistent infusion of new journeymen, the average age of our craft workforce has been reduced from 48 to 42.
CREATING A NATIONAL TRAINING TRUST
The IBEW also has identified the need to ensure that the additional 200,000 linemen needed to enter the workforce over the next five years or more are highly skilled. To help meet this need, the IBEW joined with KCP&L, DTE Energy and Tucson Electric Power in 2008 to create an unprecedented labor-management partnership in the utility industry and form the National Training Trust. As a result of this joint agreement, several regional training centers will be created, including one in Kansas City. The joint training centers will be available to smaller power companies that wouldn't otherwise have access to state-of-the-art training facilities and programs.
KCP&L believes this partnership is critical to the future of the industry and will improve the safety, consistency and the quality of training throughout the country.
TWO IS BETTER THAN ONE
When KCP&L acquired Aquila in 2008, the optimum way to derive synergies of combining the two companies was to operate them as a single entity. While it is extremely rare for the IBEW to dissolve locals, we were able to leverage our trust to merge the Aquila locals in the existing KCP&L locals. In the first year since acquisition, the integration of the companies is moving along ahead of schedule, and we are saving our customers millions because of the synergies gained through the partnership with our labor unions.
Let's be honest. We all know that management and union aren't always in agreement. But as I said earlier, much like when dealing with family matters, we decide which battles are worth fighting. KCP&L has developed a more cooperative relationship with the IBEW by building trust and leveraging that trust over time to achieve major victories benefitting both parties. So, don't let someone tell you that you can't accomplish something at your company because of the union or that the only approach is win-lose. Instead, focus on the partnership, value and tangible results that can be derived from a strong union relationship. It may pay off when you need it the most.
Bill Herdegen ([email protected]) is vice president of transmission and distribution at Kansas City Power & Light.