August 23, 2002

CHICAGO (Aug. 23)–Conventional wisdom claims labor unions in America are weak while those in Europe and Britain are strong. When American labor advocates seek new ideas and dynamic programs, they’re supposed to “Go east, young man.”

But that oversimplification was overturned this summer when the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Program reached out to UTU Illinois Legislative Board Director Joseph C. Szabo and asked him to help two visiting British labor experts find successful examples of labor-management cooperation in the Chicago area.

“I chose the Labor-Management Program at Metra as an example of what they should be studying,” Szabo said.

The Metra program, which dates back to the carrier’s founding in 1983, uses committees made up of Metra managers and unionized employees to collaborate on the development of better operating practices, construction of new facilities and rolling stock, and introduction of new technologies, such as Metra’s recently introduced automated on-board announcement system.

The first British visitor, Paul Nowak of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), arrived in May, and Szabo arranged for the two of them to meet with Metra Deputy Executive Director Rick Tidwell and outside consultant Earle Adamson, who has managed the program since its inception 19 years ago. Nowak, who recently was appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair to be the TUC’s Director of New Unionism, found what he was looking for.

“I thought the Metra example was pretty fascinating,” Nowak told “Hot Topics” following his visit. “Of course, trying to develop positive labor-management relationships is nothing new; nor is Metra’s Labor-Management Committee based on ‘rocket science.’ But I thought it was a good, positive example of what can be achieved when unions and employers decide to work in an honest and constructive way.”

Adamson, a neutral party who manages the program by virtue of being outside of both the unions and Metra management, said the program works because Metra’s original Executive Director, the late James Cole, wanted the railroad to have a mechanism for giving employees input into a decisionmaking process formerly reserved for management. Since then Adamson has put together nearly two dozen teams madeup of managers and unionized employees to jointly develop solutions to problems in all of the carrier’s functions and operations.

“They don’t get involved in collective bargaining,” Adamson said, explaining that wage-and-hours negotiations must be carried out according to provisions of the 1926 Railway Labor Act.

“What’s left?” he asked: “Running the railroad. We have labor-management teams that work on safety, on developing the Employee Assistance Program, on training issues, on rolling-stock design, on fixed-facilities design. We have one team that did nothing but work on design issues for our newest order of locomotives. We’ve even got a labor-management team for developing required legislation–a lobbying team.”

Nowak said he admired the way the format has worked.

“I was impressed by the fact that both managers and the unions were open about the problems they face, and friendly but firm in their approach,” he said. “I was heartened by the fact that the agreement brought together ALL the unions representing staff at Metra–thanks to the efforts of Joe Szabo, who I know works closely with the other transport unions. We hear a lot about workplace ‘partnership’ in the U.K.–some of it good, some of it bad–but sometimes ‘partnership’ is used by employers to take unions out of the equation. Clearly,the Metra initiative is based on a different mindset–one in which the management sees the real value in engaging with unions and their members.”

“Paul is absolutely right in saying that giving labor a voice in the organization’s decisionmaking process is not rocket science,” Szabo said. “It’s just common sense–and common courtesy.

“The problem,” Szabo added, “is that it’s not common. Almost nobody does it. Metra is one of the few carriers in the rail industry that has a meaningful mechanism for collaborative labor-management decisionmaking. The concept has not spread, even though the Metra committees have a 19-year record of working so well that some of the best minds in the European labor movement now are coming here to study them.”

In fact, two months after Nowak’s visit the International Visitors Program sent another British labor specialist to the UTU Illinois Legislative Board. Natascha Engel, Director of the London’based labor think tank the Smith Institute and policy advisor to Economic Secretary John Healey, visited Szabo at his office and received a briefing on the Metra Labor-Management Program.

Concluded Szabo:

“It’s really gratifying to see the Metra Labor-Management Program passing the test with these critics from overseas. But it’s also ironic. If only we could get the same attention from the railroad industry here at home!