By Eric Geller
The Kenyon administration and the two unions representing Kenyon’s maintenance workers formally approved a new set of compromises and strategies designed to improve management-labor relations during an event in Peirce Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 14.
President Sean Decatur, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) President R. Thomas Buffenbarger and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) President Bruce Klipple signed the agreement, known as the Middle Path Partnership (MPP), in front of the entire maintenance staff shortly after 10 a.m.
Before signing, each of the three men gave a short speech. Custodian Linda Beck, president of IAM Local 2794, which includes the custodians and groundskeepers, said Decatur mentioned his grandfather’s union membership and that all three presidents “gave wonderful speeches.” The two union presidents, she said, “talked about everything that we went through to get to this point.”
Greg Widener, the director of facility operations, was also in attendance and said the speeches confirmed each party’s support for the MPP. “They were saying, ﾑYes, we recognize this, this is a good thing, and we’re here to support it, and by virtue of our signatures, [we] are saying, let’s move forward and work together,'” Widener said.
The plan is based on a conceptual framework called the High-Performance Work Organization (HPWO) Partnership that IAM developed approximately 20 years ago to improve management-union relations. Kenyon is the first educational institution to implement a plan based on the HPWO concept. “That’s a big thing for [IAM],” Widener said. “To say, ﾑWe’ve got not only just a service group out there, but a group that’s in an educational facility that’s trying this to make their process better.'”
The College and the unions agreed to the basic framework for what would become the MPP last spring. In April, a group of maintenance workers representing both unions traveled to IAM’s headquarters in Maryland for a week to learn how to prepare the formal MPP document. Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman and all of the maintenance employees’ managers also attended the April sessions.
“We learned a lot on how to be partners,” Beck said. “Before we went and we were having these MPP meetings, I was like, I’m in so over my head. I really was. And I think everybody felt like that. But every time we met, it got a little bit better and we’d just take a little piece by little piece until we finally came up with a plan.”
As part of the compromise, both the union workers and the maintenance employees in management positions accepted a wage freeze for the 2013-2014 school year. The MPP agreement also eliminated a two-percent pay raise that had been previously negotiated.
The MPP features a “daily operations team,” which Widener described as the “core team” that considers all issues related to improving the Maintenance Department. In addition, there are two open chairs available to any member of the Kenyon community.
Widener said Decatur “indicated he would come and sit in this room in an open chair and hear how we conduct business and affirm that we are on the right track with what he is seeing in running the College.”
The 48-page MPP document includes a description of the partnering philosophy behind the HPWO concept, a list of roles and responsibilities that union leaders are expected to perform and an explanation of how the department will track its own progress. It also provides an overview of the natural work group structure, in which maintenance workers are divided into teams based on a type of task or function.
Section B, the “employee security agreement,” promises that “ideas and initiatives originated by workers will not result in a loss of employment or reduced pay and benefits for any full time or part time employee.”
Carpenter Robert Smith, president of UE Local 712, which represents the trades workers, said this provision is an important change to the way Maintenance has operated. “Before, the atmosphere wasn’t there for anybody to take advantage of ideas or concerns, and now the structure’s in place,” he said. “Things don’t fall through the cracks like they did before.”
Most of the work that led to the agreement took place before Decatur entered the process in July.
“There was a long marathon and I was the runner who comes in at mile 26.1 and crosses the finish line,” Decatur said.
Decatur says he’s eager to learn about the situation. “One of the first things I did when I arrived in July was take a tour of the maintenance shop and had a chance to meet not just the management staff but the folks who are doing the work across campus,” he said.
Both Beck and Smith expected the partnership would be an evolving process.
“I can’t say it’s been smooth sailing the whole time,” Smith said, “but it’s definitely a thousand percent better than it was a year ago or prior to the outsourcing attempt.”
Beck was realistic about the work ahead for the Maintenance Department, but she also expressed optimism about the MPP. “We didn’t get in this mess overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight,” she said. “It’s little steps, all these little steps. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”