Labor-management partnerships

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Training programs for maintenance staff are a frequent outcome of labor-management partnerships. Source: Kecko


Transit agencies rely on a large employee base to operate. Many of these employees, particularly vehicle operators and maintenance workers, are likely unionized. As in any industry, relations between management and labor can be strained. While it is perfectly healthy for the two sides to have their own priorities, finding some way to cooperate is in everyone’s best interest. Labor-management partnerships (LMPs) are a tool that agencies can use to build healthy relationships in which both labor and management can achieve desirable outcomes. A job training program is an example of something that can come out of an LMP and benefit both labor (as workers learn valuable skills) and management (as the company profits from a more highly skilled workforce). LMPs are not an alternative to the conventional dispute resolution process, but tool to help guide overall labor-management relations. The Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) has compiled a toolkit help transit agencies through the process of establishing LMPs.

Elements of the Toolkit

Labor-Management Charter

The core of the LMP is a charter in which both sides commit to working together. The charter lets labor and management highlight previous successful cooperation and identify areas in which they can act for mutual benefit. The charter is intended to be a non-binding document; specific actions might require additional binding contracts. A sample charter is available in the toolkit.

Labor-Management Partnership Guidance

This section section of the toolkit provides guidelines for creating a successful LMP. These guidelines are organized into five groups: improving the cultural environment for partnerships, prioritizing the best partnership objectives, advocating the partnership, building strength with the partnership, and making the most of events.

  • Improving the cultural environment for partnerships - Successful partnerships are based on mutual respect. While labor and management will often disagree, these disagreements should be handled through effective communication.
  • Prioritizing the best partnership objectives - While some issues facing a transit agency are zero-sum and require concessions from one side, others are mutually beneficial. These win-win issues are the easiest to address through the LMP framework.
  • Advocating the partnership - An LMP cannot work without stakeholder buy-in. Managers and union leaders must convince their respective constituencies that participation in the LMP does not mean compromising on goals.
  • Building strength with the partnership - The partnership should have clear goals, accountability, and allocation of resources. If possible, hiring an independent facilitator can help with this process.
  • Making the most of events - Specific successes and challenges can both be used to catalyze support for the LMP. Because leadership turnover is detrimental to cooperation, both sides should have plans to maintain the LMP through times of change.

Labor-Management Partnership Workshop Framework

Workshops are a key part of a successful LMP. Well organized meetings improve the effectiveness of communication between labor and management. This framework can serve as a blueprint for any meeting associated with the partnership.

When creating a results-oriented working group, an effective first step is to identify goals, roles, and procedures. Concrete goals provide the group something to work towards; without every member being on the same page in terms of objectives, the group will not be productive. Establishing set roles such as facilitator and secretary keeps meetings running smoothly. Operational and conduct procedures also help keep meetings positive and productive.

Working groups are going to have conflicts. This is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s an important sign that people are being open and honest. However, if conflict gets out of hand then it becomes dangerous. To maintain a healthy atmosphere, encourage participants to focus on specific comments without speaking personally about whoever made them. When problems do arise, the facilitator should let problem individuals know that they are behaving in contradiction to the agreed-upon rules.

Case Studies

In creating the toolkit, TCRP conducted case studies of six transit operators across the country. The study participants are anonymous, but they are medium-to-large agencies, most of which operate both bus and rail. Two examples highlight the lessons of the study.

Study 1

The first agency operates bus and rail in a traditionally agricultural region. Its LMP was established to promote job training, specifically focused on the promotion and transfer of existing employees. Funded by payroll deductions, management outlays, and state and local resources, the program is guided by an independent facilitator. Management and labor both speak very highly of the partnership, and after it was established it grew to encompass training for new employees and other workplace issues. The LMP is kept separate from the more contentious collective bargaining process.

Study 2

Another agency is a regional transit provider operating bus and light rail. Much of its fixed-route service is contracted out, and the union covers one of the two contractors. In general, there is a perception of a good relationship between management and labor at the agency. However, this relationship is informal and seems to rest largely on the relationship between the agency’s general manager and the union president. Without a formal LMP, the relationship is at high risk of deteriorating if either leader left the organization.

Labor–Management Partnerships for Public Transportation Toolkit

Further Reading

Baker, S., Zhong, C., Taylor, D., Scott, W. F., & Plante, R. (2015). Labor–Management Partnerships for Public Transportation, Final Report. Transit Cooperative Research Program.

This report describes the process used to develop the toolkit. It includes a literature review, surveys, and case studies.