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Using the recent SEIU 1877 janitor's strike as a model, a look at the conflicting interests and needs of management and staff.  As a manager, something to think about while striking a prudent business balance.

The needs of management and staff are the conjunction of the ends of the spectrum. That fact was poignantly demonstrated in April when the janitors' union SEIU 1877 went on strike. There are lessons in that series of events for anyone who is in management or desires to reach that level.

The Eve of
It's after 7:30 p.m. on March 30, 2000. The supervisor, accompanied by his subordinate, opens the office door with a firm twist of the knob. They enter the suite somberly, without a word. Quietly the two survey the office, the supervisor points out places of particular concern to the worker. The subordinate gravely nods.

Without the usual, "Thank you," the review is completed and the pair exit the office two minutes after their entry. They move on to the next suite.

For half an hour or more before the visit, raucous noises of shaken tin cans filled with metal chips rise to the 42nd floor of the office towers on Bunker Hill. It is reflective of what's happening at the same time all over the country. The noise grows in intensity by the quarter hour. By 9 p.m., it's almost constant. The street is abnormally populated. Nearly all of its inhabitants are wearing red tee-shirts and either being a source of the din, holding placards or chanting a faintly discernible mantra.

The atmosphere is tense. Security around the courts of buildings is unobtrusive but it uncharacteristically populates the grounds.

The SEIU 1877 strike has started.

Line Picture
As I cross the street, there are two sole strikers standing at the top of stairs leading down to a water court. One is chanting the strike mantra while the other holds a sign. My usual scurry to the busstop ceases four steps toward the water court. I turn back and approach the strikers. Immediately the passive security person springs to alert, positioning himself as a shield between me and the two strikers. I want to tell him I'll be okay. Instead I press on with my purpose.

The chanting striker has a heavy Spanish accent. My mind defaults to his language as I ask, "Que quieres? Dinero solamente? [What do you want? Only money?]"

The chanter stops. He's agitated. Even in the dark one can see his eyes flit and flash, fed by adrenaline. The security person quickly moves closer to protect, almost covering me.

"What?" responds the chanter. The question is repeated.

His accent is heavy and his pauses indicate he has functional English skills. No, it isn't just money. But the company is not being fair he says. The workers are paid $6.75 an hour. They haven't had a raise in years. But it's more than money, he explains. "They want to take away our benefits." He continues with difficulty until his partner, who has strong English, picks up the reportage. The security person has rocked back from his protective crouch.

The second explains that the company wants to revoke employee benefits including paid holidays and vacation. It no longer wants to provide medical or dental coverage for either family or workers. That is in addition to no raise in pay.

The bus ride home is uneventful. During the ride, I survey the cross-section of humanity and recall conversations with similar people on similar rides.

"I just got off work. I'm so tired." We agree the day is long. However the speaker works two jobs. Each pays between $6.75 and $10 per hour. "I had a car, but I sold it. It was too expensive to drive." There was gasoline plus repair and maintenance costs, not to mention insurance and parking fees. Getting rid of the car eliminated that drain on income. The tradeoff, however, was being at the mercy of public transportation schedules and routes plus protracted arrival at some desired destinations while others were no longer reachable.

Another conversation has similar tones. This one revealed that the two jobs are necessary to make ends meet -- yet they don't. He tallies, "I pay rent, utilities, phone, laundry and buy groceries. Then there's nothing left." No movies or concerts or museums. No weekly shopping sprees for the latest fashion trend or vanity purchases. He complains, no, he comments, that the little private time he does have is spent getting a little sleep so that he can rise and go to work again.

Management's Picture
On the other side of the strike picture is management. Theirs is also a thankless position. The job is to keep the company running, keep the services good to excellent and consistent. Foremost is to keep costs down so that the company realizes a profit -- and survives -- and pay the shareholders a dividend.

The managers are caught in the middle of trying to answer the same calls for relief from both ends of the spectrum. There are costs that need to be covered for office space, supplies and equipment. There are bonds to renew and several layers of taxes, not to mention reports that need to be filed with government agencies and other counter-balancing departments.

The building needs new clothes. In structural terms, this means paint and repairs to fixtures. The fleet of company cars is in constant need of maintenance, insurance, gas, and storage. There is a certain positive image the company needs to maintain and all of these back office issues are part of that image.

Equality of Needs
Just as the strikers have blood cells coursing through their veins that keeps them alive, the company likewise has blood cells. Those cells are all of the employees coursing through the company infrastructure.

Managers and company bargainers have a clash of interests on their hands at all times and this strike is tolling recognition of that conflict. Both sides of the middle and senior managers' responsibility demands have valid issues and needs. In this case, management's duty is to keep the company alive.

The strike was settled. According to an April 24, 2000 AP Online story by Gary Gentile, workers returned to their positions after a three-week strike. Across the country, the terms were very nearly the same. Janitors were given a raise in pay. They retained their paid medical and vacation benefits.

Recognizing Management Needs
As a manager at any corporate level, one needs to recognize that the two needs are equally compelling. The paradox comes when you're face to face with the reality that giving in to one side too much will tip the scales of business viability drastically. Giving too much to workers will keep them economically happy until they realize the work is not fulfilling and then move on. To make the workers toil under austere conditions and treat them as fungible commodities is to increase costs in another realm -- recruitment and training. If morale is low, the resulting hemorrhage will be detrimental if not debilitating.

The clash of interests has a delicate balance that must be respected. You, as a manager, need to be sensitive to both sides of the equation in order to maximize the interests of all parties.


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Originally published June 9, 2000