October 3, 2000

Western N.Y. Study Credits Unions

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Unions may not be bad for business in New York after all.

A study titled “Champions at Work: Employment, Workplace Practices, and Labor-Management Relations in Western New York,” released by the Western Region of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations on Sept. 20, revealed that unions in that region provide a competitive advantage in industry.

Western New York has one of the world’s highest concentrations of unions, and that has been seen as a detriment, said Lou Jean Fleron, director of the Western Region and member of the ILR extension faculty.

However, the results say unions in the region are “far from being a disadvantage,” he said.

“This report clearly indicates that in workplace practices, labor relations and workforce quality, western New York is a world-class region,” Fleron said in a press release.

The groups performing the study hoped the results would confirm their belief that the “workforce is of exceptionally high quality here,” as compared with locations around the country, he explained. But they had to remain objective while conducting the study.

The first part, a survey, was conducted by the Computer-Assisted Survey Team, a survey research facility housed in the University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The telephone survey questioned several hundred employers and union leaders about the workforce and the state of labor relations.

The survey discovered that in western New York, there are higher incidences of productivity and working in teams, as compared with workers in other areas of the country.

Unions may benefit labor relations as well. The survey results showed that 56 percent of unionized employers and unions report their relationship as harmonious, and only 22 percent describe it as adversarial.

“Our findings even surprised us — the extent of the positive response we got,” Fleron said.

Widespread joint labor management programs in unionized workplaces and more communications practices by unionized employers than by nonunionized employers, were other local trends indicated in the survey results.

A collection of 15 case studies of local “enterprises” comprised the second part of the study, providing “a close-up examination of strategic organizational change, employer-union relationships and workforce development,” according to the report.

The studies examine such corporations as General Motors, SYSCO Food Services and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. These businesses and organizations have had competitive success and drew in big investment by the company, according to Fleron. The GM plant is “the most productive engine plant in the world,” she said.

“We were proud … of the fact that it confirms what we thought about the region,” she added. “[It is a] good place to invest in.”

The results are the yield of an eight-month study, funded by a $70,000 grant from the New York State Department of Education.

“We needed to know more about labor relations in the region,” Fleron said. The Western Region of ILR collaborated with the Western New York AFL-CIO Economic Development Group and the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise to examine the private-sector economy. The groups are working to “promote regional success and to encourage new investment and job creation effort here in the region.” According to state assembly member Sam Hoyt (D-144), their approximate goal is to attract 50,000 new jobs over a period of about five years.

With help from the Western New York State Legislative Delegation, the AFL-CIO EDG approached State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-62) to ask for a grant, which they received.

“No one can dispute that Buffalo is a big labor town,” Hoyt said, explaining that the high instance of unionization gives some the perception that the region is anti-business.

“We knew differently — we wanted to put together a body of evidence that independently proved otherwise,” Hoyt said. “It strengthened what most of us already knew: this is a strong labor community, but the record and result of the study show that that’s not a negative.”

However, this is only the first phase — the descriptive phase of the study. During the second phase, the Western Region of ILR’s extension program will analyze the survey results.

“This first report is just the beginning of the analysis of it,” Fleron said.

In the meantime, he noted, the response to the study from the state has been positive.

“We have so many requests for reports that we have trouble filling them,” Fleron said.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder