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An Ethical Quagmire (Giggity, Giggity)

So, I'm back at work, and I have something of an ethical quagmire. If you have a minute to discuss the ethics of "us" and "them," I'd love some feedback!



I work in an aluminum rolling mill, and we are unionized. There is a definite us vs. them mentality when it comes to the hourly floor workers (like me) and the salaried supervisors. The plant is not perfect. The machines are aging and many issues that make them hard to operate are not always fixed in a timely fashion, even when brought to management’s attention multiple times. We have a suggestion book, but there seem to be times when suggestions are entered (again, multiple times) and nothing is done.

Not surprisingly, a certain amount of attitude has developed on the floor. A definite, "Not my problem, pass the buck, leave it for the next shift, we get paid whether the machine is running at full speed or not." To an extent, I understand and sympathize. When we're told to meet certain production goals, but can't since the machines break down multiples times in a shift, frustration develops. When the previous shift leaves a mess for you, you don't feel charitable about making things neat for them. When management fails to listen to your perfectly reasonable suggestions for the sixth time in a row, you figure that you can't make a difference, so why bother?

The other day at work, we had a meeting with our area manager where we discussed a lot of these problems. Problems with quality, with our training program, machine maintenance, the works. And the solutions we came up with and things discussed... here's where my ethical problems come in.

I am one of the few college-educated people on my shift. I have a pretty good ability to listen and respond to "corporatese," the language managers speak. Where they talk about "improving performance by minimizing error traps" and other such lovely pretty bullshit talk, I can figure out their actual message pretty well. But I think a lot of my co-workers either can't or won't translate it, or simply don't care to after listening to it for the 85th time. They listen and you can see their eyes glaze over. Our area manager (the fifth or sixth in a short period of time) is an enthusiastic guy who is trying to make a difference, but trying to get us engaged was intensely frustrating for both him and us.

The thing is, I want to get engaged, and I do want to help, but I don't want to be labeled as a "corporate kiss-ass" or inadvertently undermine our union stewards' goals of getting the management to hold to their promises. The thing is though, the plant is moving towards autonomous teams, where regular floor workers (us) will be operating their machines and meeting production goals without a supervisor. So, in a year or so, we aren't going to be able to lay our problems on management. Shouldn't we get our butts in gear so we can make a difference and lay out changes now, instead of getting saddled with all of our current problems at once?

Three things of particular interest came up. One was our working schedule, something that's not likely to change for a long time, if ever. Before I started working here, apparently my department was on an 8-hour schedule. First, second, and third shift, easy as you please. However, the plant moved to a 24-hour, 7 day-a-week schedule, and now my department has 12-hour shifts, on a rotating, two-week schedule. You either work 6am-6pm, or the opposite. You stay on day or nights (no swing shift), but you work two days on, two days off, in a pattern that repeats every two weeks. So you work 80 hours in a two-week span, though the precise hours vary slightly.

Many of the people who remember this schedule detest the 12-hour shifts with a passion. They recall running as much or more metal in an 8-hour shift as they do now in a 12-hour shift. The reason, they say, is that they know they're here for 12 hours, and that drains their motivation.

Here's the thing, I've always worked 12-hour schedules. When I was in high school, I was a student athletic trainer, so right after school, I was at sports practice for another 3-4 hours, and longer on game days. College, same thing. My jobs after college, I was also working 12 hours, either in one job or in a combination of two. It doesn't bother me. I've never known anything better (barring the 15 months I was laid off). Then again, I don't have kids, so maybe for those guys it's harder. Or perhaps because I'm only 29, and the other guys are older, sometimes much older. But they hate being here for 12 hours. Me, I'd say suck it up, but that wouldn't go over well. I'm utterly grateful to be here. After being laid off, I'm twice as grateful. Anywhere else would make me work five times as hard for a third of the pay I receive at the factory.

Second third, training. Each of the machines in our department requires at least five people to run it, and each of those five positions are separate. Job one is different from job two. However, since everyone has been recalled from the massive layoff, we've all had to be retrained in the jobs we knew. And it's not happening in a regular fashion. I find myself on job 1, machine 1 one day, and job 3, machine 2 another day. It takes more than a day to be retrained on some of these jobs, and we're not getting that time consistently. Or some guys are getting the time, but will not sign the paperwork saying they're ready to work on their own, because they don't want to. Personal laziness, or "camping" out on a job someone wants, does happen with some people in our department. According to the old timers, it used to be that there was a set rotation. For one week, you were on job 1, machine 1. Next week, job 2, machine one. And so on and so forth down the line. Then you went to machine two. Next month back to machine one. Very simple.

Not possible, given our current group of people. We have very few people that know all the positions, and too many that know only one or two. Some, as I said, don't want to know them all, because that would force them to be responsible and work harder. But you'll find that in any group of people; some want to learn it all, some don't want to learn a thing. The thing is, management doesn't always know who's in training, who needs more training, and who is ready to sign off as trained on certain jobs. Even before I was laid off, when I had been qualified on every position on three machines for a year, I was asked which jobs I was qualified for every time the schedule was changed. There was no quick and easy way to know who was qualified.

Later that day after the meeting, I doodled up a quick training matrix idea, showing the jobs and machines on the top, and the names of the workers down the side. Then the various boxes could be filled with "Trained," "Untrained," or "In Training" as the case may be. Lets the supervisor (and the fellow workers) see who needs what at a glance. When I showed it to one of our union stewards, he said it looked like a decent idea, but that we shouldn't be doing management's job for them. More on that later.

Third thing, quality training. Knowing exactly how the metal should look in order to sell it is important for every job on every machine. Some defects in the metal can be accepted by some customers for some kinds of applications. Others can't. And there is no comprehensive guide of pictures as to acceptable and unacceptable flaws, or even a decent description as to what certain customers will accept. Such a book has been requested multiple times both before and during my time with this company. But when I mentioned it in the meeting and handed our area manager a written version of the suggestion, he found it to be a novel idea. It was quickly pointed out the fact that this had been needed for years, and the area manager brought forth the suggestion that I might work with some of the guys in the quality department to help make such a book. (I would be representing the end user of such a product.)

Here's my ethic dilemma. As our union steward said, he doesn't want us to do management's job for them in working up things like a training matrix and quality guide, as these are things that they should have done years ago. However, clearly management doesn't know exactly what we need on the floor, or we would have had them years ago. If you want something done right, do it yourself. At least then we know things are being done by someone who is on the floor and has a decent chance of knowing what is needed and how it should be formatted.

Because the generalized and specific whining and bitching that happens at every meeting produces damn little in the way of results and keeps the resentment level high. While I don't like the idea of "put up or shut up," I'm tired of working short of tools that are really needed.

My dilemma is, in short, how far can and should I work with the company to get what we as workers need without undermining my fellow union brothers?

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
angary
Oct. 12th, 2010 10:50 am (UTC)
Holy crap, that sounds like a really tough situation to be in. I really don't know much about how to handle stuff like this, but if you think it would help at all, maybe you could write a letter to the person above your area manager addressing the issues you laid out, and providing stuff like the training matrix you came up with to show that you do have ideas on how to improve things. And since you don't want to undermine your co-workers, maybe you could keep the tone very personalized and use "I" a lot, showing that you have noticed these problems and that you think certain changes would benefit everyone in the long run.

Sorry I can't be of much help, but I do hope you find a way to make things better for you all in the long run. I am thrilled that you do have this job and that you don't mind the shift change - I personally don't know how I could manage 12-hour shift, so maaajor kudos to you for working those kind of hours! - and whatever happens, I wish you the best and hope that someone else on your flist will come up with a good idea for you to work with. Good luck! *Hugs*
notcrazy_honest
Oct. 12th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
Oh man, this is a difficult dilemma. And I have almost no experience with stuff like this, so take my blathering with a grain of salt.

It sounds like frustration and resentment has gotten to the point where neither side is really willing to do much. However, since it sounds like management is at least willing to listen somewhat- I'd suggest going for at least one of the projects (the matrix or the guide) that you've suggested. Give working with the supervisors a try. If they really are decent managers, they'll take the help and realize that implementing these things would be really helpful. It might motivate them to think a little more. If they're not that great, they'll toss it aside, and you'll know not to waste any more time on them. But I just think that if anyone can make a step towards the 'two sides' understanding each other again, it'll make working at your company a lot more pleasant.

And if you're worried about undermining the union people- well, I think they'd forgive one attempt at it. If it doesn't work out, you can pull back, apologize, and go back to doing your job the way you have been.

The only other thing I'd look out for here is the supervisors trying to take advantage of you- make you work more or work off the clock to do this extra stuff. That's...pretty much the only problem I've had personally, and I don't know if it'd be an issue in this situation, actually, so I'll just leave it at that.
jaune_chat
Oct. 12th, 2010 03:01 pm (UTC)
Oh trust me, I will not be working off the clock. If the company can afford to pay me to sit on my butt for 7.5 hours (which I did earlier this week) due to an electrical breakdown in one of the machines, they can just as well pay me the same wage to type up something on Excel.

I believe the managers will help, once someone shows them exactly what is needed on the floor. If I can give them a big push (or a kick in the ass), it'll be worth it to lessen the tension these meetings cause.
notcrazy_honest
Oct. 12th, 2010 08:32 pm (UTC)
Oh good. One of my retail jobs (which will remain nameless because it doesn't exist anymore) tricked me into that sort of thing. :P Eventually they tricked me into managing a store at $7.50 an hour for six weeks, and that was when I said goodbye.

But yes, I think that's a really good idea! If they get what they need, and they know that they have a little support in the worker side, I think they'll give it a chance.
ewinfic
Oct. 12th, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)
Print this out and hand it to your managers.

This seems to encapsulate what they need to know, honestly.
lerah99
Oct. 12th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)
1) I'd talk with your Union Steward to find out if working with quality on the book will hurt any part of the union's current negotiations.
If not, go for it.

If he says, "Don't do this right now" they may be in the middle of talks about what will happen when you guys are shifted over to not having supervisors next year. You don't want to mess up those talks.

2) Other than that, you know where you work and the people you work with. Is it the type of shop where you will lose your coworker's support if you do the slightest thing to help the suits - then it may not be worth the trouble and harassment they could create for you.

takhallus
Oct. 12th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
I'm in a union and if we quite often liaise with management over working practises. The thing you have to think is - who will benefit if the practises which are written and endorsed by the workers are taken on? Everyone. The unions shouldn't exist to make things difficult for management, they should exist to make things better for the workforce. If those improvements also benefit management then they are much more likley to listen in future.

I think you need to speak to your steward, you're not doing anything wrong if your ultimate goal is better working conditions for the people in the factory.
brighteyed_jill
Oct. 13th, 2010 09:03 pm (UTC)
I agree with takhallus. It's something that's benefiting you directly, and they're just more likely to do it because it benefits them to. If you make sure it's not actually messing up union negotiations or something, I think it's a good move. Also, probably most of your union brothers won't know who helped initiate the changes, so I don't think you're in much danger of being ostracized.

Also, hi!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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