Latest News

MALMC Finds Common Ground, Builds Skills at 33rd Annual Event

“Seeking common ground is what’s missing in this country” said Thomas Kochan, MIT professor and keynote speaker at the 33rd Mid-America Labor/Management Conference.  He praised attendees for applying “Midwest common sense” in labor-management cooperation and called on them to “show the country the way.”

Kochan led off three days of speakers, workshops and networking opportunities for 120 labor and management leaders from Missouri, Kansas and other states at Camden on the Lake July 8-11.  Topics included bargaining techniques, health care solutions, prevailing wage update, worker mental health, women in skilled trades, fiduciary responsibility for benefit plan trustees, cyber security, arbitration, OSHA programs and the “right-to-work” Missouri ballot issue among others.

MIT economists, Kochan noted, have observed a “tinderbox” of conflict that could explode from rising economic inequality, demographic changes, decreased quality of jobs and workforce shortages, a “brain drain” in many communities and social tensions.  The result is increase polarization and decreased ability to solve problems, he said.  Kochan cited successful examples of labor-management cooperation that provide a model for the rest of society.  Ultimately, he contended, a new “social contract” between business, labor, government and education is needed to address the serious issues the U.S. and other countries face and help restore a strong middle class.

Kochan called for encouraging “high road” business employment strategies, restoring consumer buying power in a new way and bringing stakeholders together as cornerstones for building a new social contract.  He noted specific examples of companies and unions finding success with this approach and says research overwhelming shows workers want greater voice.  Those surveys show workers interest in greater voice has increased in the past 20 years, including a significant increase in interest in unions and desire for labor-management cooperation.

Both management and labor will need to make significant changes for a new social contract to be effective, Kochan said, building trust between themselves and listening to the workforce.  Such a “high road” strategy would benefit each of the stakeholders and society overall, Kochan contended.

After Kochan’s challenging and inspiring address, two workshops benefited attendees:  Affinity Approach to Collective Bargaining presented by Glen Reed and Myla Hite, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and The Union’s Duty of Fair Representation presented by National Labor Relations Board field examiners William LeMaster and Carla Coffman.

The affinity approach to bargaining is one strategy to help reach agreement.  Key elements including sharing information, being open to all alternatives and “working the puzzle” of fitting proposals and ideas into addressing each side’s concerns.

Unions have legal requirements to serve represented workers (members or not) in bargaining, grievances and employee communication and are prohibited from seeking discharge of those workers.  The NLRB presentation detailed the union’s obligations under the NLRA.

Missouri passed legislation that will speed up needed utility infrastructure investment and control rate increases, Irl Scissors of Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future told the conference.  He and Zach Pollock, Missouri Electric Co-Ops, predicted job growth from the long-sought legislation.  Pollock also urged more investment in rural broadband and a Missouri license plate for utility workers.

Chris Carlough, SMART MAP education director, gave a powerful presentation on the threat to workers and workplaces from addiction.  While he noted the increase in opiod issues, he explained that alcoholism and tobacco use remain the most significant causes of death and disease from addiction especially among workers, costing employers an estimated $24 billion annually.  Carlough also said that cannabis use is not without risk of addiction as well, and spreading legalization may increase issues for employers.  Unlike other substances, cannabis is not yet tightly regulated so potency rates are increasing rapidly.

A key to addressing addiction is to remove the stigma attached to it, Carlough said.  The stigma inhibits seeking of treatment; 90 percent of addicts do not receive treatment and are much more likely to attempt suicide that those who area treated.  He added that treatment is often a long-term process requiring several attempts.  He and SMART MAP have developed a training for business agents, stewards and others to recognize addiction in workers and know how to help them.  PTSD is another rising problem and workplace leaders need to know how to recognize and help address that as well. Carlough offered to share his insights with employers and unions at the conference.

Physical health care was the focus for Cerner Corp.’s presentation.  Cerner operates a clinic in the Operating Engineers Local 101 union hall for members and families and is opening clinics at other union sites as well.  Aaron Brown, Local 101 business representative, reported that the results for usage, prevention and return on investment so far have exceeded expectations with nearly 44 percent of members accessing the clinic. John Howard, Cerner, and Pat Donohue, Taft-Hartley health plan consultant, added that smaller funds could combine to open similar clinics.

Cerner also offers pharmaceutical services to better control costs, improve compliance and convenience.  Cerner pharmacy consultant Erin Smith explained that rapidly-rising pharmacy costs could be addressed and that compliance was key to better overall health results.  She quoted former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s observation that medicine doesn’t work for patients who don’t take it.  More pharmacist contact with patients is a key to better compliance, Smith said.

A national shortage of skilled workers can be addressed with greater participation of women, but women must be better accepted and more aggressively recruited according to a panel.  Alise Martiny, business manager of the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades Council and president of OPCMIA Local 518; Tania McNeive, IBEW 7th District Women’s Committee and Kansas Gas Service; and Sara Wilder, Topeka United Way and Steelworkers Local 307 out of the Goodyear plant cited their own experiences of overcoming resistance, finding strong mentors and gaining the confidence to be leaders as examples that woman can succeed in skilled trades careers.

Martiny noted that to recruit any group there need to be “people who look like them” in the trade or organization put forward.  Each noted the roles of family members raising their awareness of career opportunities and the need to educate both current workers and potential ones.  McNeive cited a supervisor who at first resisted her presence but eventually became an ally.  Wilder said that women sometimes must do tasks differently than men to achieve the same results.  The percent of women in the building trades is increasing, Martiny said, but further progress requires the setting and achieving of diversity goals in public construction spending.

For union members, all agreed that the Coalition of Labor Union Women and women in the trades groups help women succeed.  Grants are available for programs to recruit, train and help retain women in these positions, Martiny added.  All three also urged women to become active in their unions and run for union office, as each of them has.

Workers who bring attention to safety issues at work have protection of federal law if they experience and report retaliation for their action within 30 days, explained Mike Oesch, acting assistant regional administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  He outlined the process and relevant statutes while encouraging workers and employers to openly address safety issues.

Bill McDonald, OSHA St. Louis regional office director, discussed the Voluntary Protection Plan that allows fewer inspections for workplaces that agree to use best practices in safety.  The program is a win-win for workers and employers, helping employers save money while keeping workers safer.  He urged those interested to contact OSHA.

MIssouri’s new prevailing wage law is a compromise that few like and includes uncertainty in how some provisions will be administered, but the bill passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor retains the essence of the law.  The process to develop the changes and what they will mean for employers, contractors and workers was discussed by Missouri State Senators Gina Walsh and Dave Schatz.

Sen. Schatz pointed out that the new project exemption threshold of $75,000 was far below his proposal and the retention of a streamlined process of occupational titles was more complex than he preferred.  But he noted that the threshold on project size and the provision requiring 1,000 hours of work in each occupational title to be reported for prevailing wage to be required would provide relief for smaller and rural public bodies.  He agreed that the new definition of “trainee” versus certified apprenticeship participants would need more definition but would allow more contractors to make use of newer workers on covered public jobs.  He pledged to work to fix any problem issues and seek adequate funding for enforcement.

Sen. Walsh, who opposed changing the law, said that Missouri Department of Labor rule making on several provisions and funds for enforcement were crucial to the new law functioning as intended.  She noted that Sens. Schatz and Gary Romine worked hard with her to craft a bill that could pass the Senate and preserve the law, and that contractor groups both union and nonunion contributed many of the ideas that comprised the final bill.

Audience members raised many questions and both senators pledged to listen and discuss as the process moves forward.

A mock arbitration, historically one of the conference’s most popular programs, returned this year.  Volunteers play roles such as arbitrator, management representatives, union representatives, witnesses and disciplined workers.  This presenters this year included Patrick Dunn, arbitrator; Will Lawrence, union counsel; Kara Larson (Kansas City Power & Light Co.), company counsel; Steve Boyce (Westar Energy), Labor and Employee Relations director; John Garretson (IBEW Local 304), union business manager; Bret Bonge (Kansas City Power & Light Co.), supervisor; Brad Miller (IBEW Local 304), line foreman/dismissed employee; and Gene Sicard (IBEW Local 304), lineman and injured worker.

Finances were the focus of afternoon sessions:  Fiduciary Responsibility for Benefit Fund Trustees and Personal Financial Planning.

The role of benefit fund trustees is to protect members’ assets, the expert panel pointed out.  Federal law holds trustees accountable and serving as a trustee brings potential liability, so trustees must take their duties seriously.  Attorney Brian Dunn, Rouse Frets Gentile Rhodes, emphasized the trustees’ duties to approve expenditures and investments for the exclusive benefit of plan participants, to diversify investments, to follow plan documents and make decisions prudently.  When problems occur, notifying the USDOL early is the best approach.

Bill Miller, Novak Birks PC, noted that learning to understand reports is crucial.  “Ignorance” of what is happening with a fund’s expenses and investments is not a defense if problems arise.   He also recommended notification of attorney and CPA as soon as a notice of USDOL audit is received.  Roger Novak from Novak Birks PC recommended full disclosure and building relationships with USDOL officials.  Dunn agreed that close monitoring of investment expenses is vital.

While some management and union officials serve as benefit fund trustees, everyone serves as a trustee for their own financial future.  Brad Stephens, Principal, explained his specialization in helping workers plan for retirement and other goals and understand the best decisions on how to access retirement funds, when to file for benefits and investment options.   Stephens can help locals with free presentations for their members as well as individual meetings.

Organizations and individuals also face threats from cyber attacks.  Dr. Shannon McMurtrey, Drury University and a tech entrepreneur, demonstrated the many vulnerabilities connected information creates affecting national security, data held by companies and other organizations and even individual cell phones and home alarm systems.  Anything connected to the Internet is vulnerable, and utility systems are under increasing attack from adversaries in Russia and North Korea.

McMurtrey provided specific tips on how to minimize such vulnerability.  He emphasized that having a crisis plan understood by all in the organization is critical.  For individuals, using VPNs helps as well as using two factor authorization on devices.  Clicking on links in emails entails considerable risk, he noted,

The “right-to-work” issues on the Aug. 7 Missouri ballot, Proposition A, was explained by Mike Louis, Missouri AFL-CIO president, and Tim Weiss, TJ Weiss Contracting.  Organized labor and allies in Missouri have responded powerfully to the passage of “right-to-work” in the Missouri legislature last year leading to the ballot issue, Louis noted, and efforts on both sides will continue after the vote.

Weiss, a contractor who appears in a commercial opposing Proposition A, said the proposal hurts rather than helps business.  “I asked a local Ford dealer how many of his customers were union members.  He didn’t know, then researched it.  Turns out 23 percent of his new car customers were union members, and many bought Ford F-150s (built in Claycomo, Mo., by many of the 20 United Auto Workers members who attended) which are his most profitable product.  After that. he understood why good wages and benefits help business.”

The contractor noted that “we all pay for low-wage workers” with taxes, higher health insurance premiums and charity.  He has also written op-eds for local newspapers and hopes to “open minds” of conservatives like himself to the negative impact of Proposition A.

At its banquet, the conference also honored the memory of longtime planning committee member and volunteer Herman Wallace.  After many years of service to the conference while regional director of the U.S. Dept. of Labor Employment and Training office in Kansas City, Herman continued volunteering for the conference in retirement, often working the registration desk.  He died last year a few months before the conference.  His daughter, Alex Reece, and son Peter Wallace accepted the recognition and thanked the attendees for their impact on Herman’s life.

Conference attendees also received cash and other prizes.

Key to the conferences’ success were sponsors and planning committee members.  Sponsors included Westar Energy, Bank of Labor, Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, IBEW Local 304, Kansas Gas Service, the Labor-Management Council of Greater Kansas City, the National Labor Relations Board, Sheet Metal Workers Local 2 and KCMO Electric.

Planning committee members included co-chairs Bret Bonge, Kansas City Power & Light Co.; Bob Jacobi, Labor-Management Council of Greater Kansas City; vice co-chair Mike Louis, Missouri AFL-CIO; secretary John Garretson, IBEW Local 304; treasurer Tom Johnson, Bank of Labor; Jacque McCormick and Linda Palumbo, Kansas Gas Service; Barbara Rumph, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service; Dawn Nicklas, Nicklas Lobby; Steve Boyce, Westar Energy; Jay Lind, Sheet Metal Workers Local 2; Clark Blodgett, IBEW; Mary Taves, National Labor Relations Board; Chastity Young, Missouri National Education Association; Bobby Thompson, Federal. Mediation and Conciliation Service; Larry Rebman, Missouri Department of Labor, and Bob Stacks, State of Kansas.

The 2019 conference will return to Camden on the Lake from July 7-10.