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In The News


by David J. Wudyka, CCP, SPHR
Contributing Writer - Providence Business News: 03/15/1999


The contentious strike/lockout situation at Women and Infants Hospital (W&IH) begs an examination of what represents job security as we approach the new millennium. Despite being compensated at a level which is (conservatively) in the upper quartile of the hospital industry in Rhode Island, the position of union members and/or their leadership suggests to the public that the primary issue is not one of money, but of job security.

This concern stems largely from the anticipated effect of a possible merger with the Lifespan system. In that regard, the union's concern is understandable since "mergermania" in the 1990s has often prompted the consolidation of internal operations to eliminate the duplication of services and activities. Other actions reportedly taken by the Hospital's management since the lockout, such as increasing the role of per diem workers, also have implications for union members' job security. However, the increased use of so-called "contingent workers," who are called upon as needed, as the patient census fluctuates, is an increasingly appropriate strategy used by many businesses, including allied health care industries such as home health care. The real question, though, is how true job security can be achieved today.

One way not to achieve job security in the 1990s is to use the counterproductive, outdated and ill-conceived labor strategies employed by the union: The union's strategy of seeking guaranteed job security from W&IH reflects their belief in an "external locus of control." Specifically, this is the idea that the source of one's job security must be obtained externally, such as from an employer, as opposed to using one's own capacities (i.e. an internal locus of control) for ensuring continuous employment. It is the same strategy that angers Americans about welfare recipients who chastise government for "not doing enough" for them during prosperous economic times.

The union's strategy is like watching scenes from an old-time movie. In sympathy-sapping, sidewalk scenarios straight from that old classic, Shanty Town, we are watching the old labor paradigm in action, fighting for old objectives in old ways. The employer is denounced as the "oppressor." Operating from an egalitarian philosophy of pay, the union portrays management as overpaid (but would you want their job?). Management pay is painted as a kind of "sacrificial lamb" which management should contribute to the organization's altar, and redistribute to other employees in a communal "pay flattening" strategy (a la early Ben & Jerry's ice cream makers in Vermont).

Can the union's goals be achieved in alternate ways? I believe that they can. What is needed is a "new movie" reflecting the new paradigm of union-management relations. The "contract," written or unwritten, between employer and employee, and company and union, is changing, and so is the notion of what constitutes job security" in 1999. There is much less job security now. Observers of the workplace suggest that, at best, we can view our job as temporary, or even as a short term "project." The era of long-term protected employment with one employer is over.

The good news is that, in 1999 and beyond, there will always be opportunities for job security, job mobility and entrepreneurship. We are all "free agents," and perhaps it is best that we increasingly assume this psyche. Our job security lies in our individual ability to maintain a connection to the general workplace, not just to one employer.

It is in the successful long-term maintenance of the organization that true job security can be found. This is not always for us, but for our descendants (not pleasant news in our selfish "the future is now" society). It is in the short-term damaging circumstances that W&IH finds itself that we find the seeds of organizational decline, damaging the prospects for job security not only now, but in the future.

What can be done to resolve this dispute? The union's leadership would be wise to pursue what are known as "alternative" dispute resolution strategies. These strategies encourage not an "us vs. them" attitude, but an attitude of collaboration. The focus should be upon finding new ways to redefine the notion of job security in the Hospital. Is there a "skill gap?" Identify which skills are needed, the people willing to learn them, and use reward systems (such as Skill-Based Pay) to motivate and pay people for doing so. Will the Hospital require new professions in the future? Train and educate people internally and externally as appropriate through various forms of educational assistance- Are some workplace skills becoming obsolete? Identify them, forewarn employees who possess them, and re-educate them. If this is not possible, employ Human Resource policies which enable workers to obtain new links to the world of employment. Does the Hospital need to achieve new levels of competitiveness? Use unifying pay strategies (such as Gainsharing) to motivate people to work together to achieve common goals for the good of the organization's long-term survival. Are more contingent workers needed? If these ideas and others are pursued by the union's leadership, it is possible find common ground with management in the contracting and competitive health care environment of our times, which demands collaboration, not confrontation.

David Wudyka is the Managing Principal of Westminster Associates, a human resource consulting firm located in Woonsocket, and an Adjunct Instructor in Management at the United States Coast Guard Academy.

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