At Beth Steel, leadership becomes a partnership Labor, management make joint decisions

April 23, 1995|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

For 25 years, Larry Burks showed up for his job at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant stringing electric cable and wiring. His boss told him what to do, and his opinion wasn't welcomed.

But now Mr. Burks sits on a joint labor management committee, and supervisors listen to how he thinks the plant should be run. And he's privy to what was once a highly guarded secret: monthly detailed reports on Sparrows Point's performance -- cash flow, return on net assets, even the amount and type of steel produced for each customer.

Mr. Burks is part of an experiment born from the 1993 contract negotiations between Bethlehem Steel Corp. and the United Steelworkers of America. The partnership -- as it is simply called -- envisions replacing the traditional adversarial relationship between management and labor with a cooperative one. The agreement even stretches to Bethlehem's board of directors, which now includes a representative of labor.

For both sides the stakes are high, experts and industry and union officials say. To compete effectively with foreign steelmakers and low-cost mini-mills -- and to preserve the remaining high-paying union jobs -- Big Steel needs to be highly efficient and flexible.

"It's an issue of survival for them," said Edwin A. Locke, chairman of the management faculty at the College of Business and Management at the University of Maryland. "They decided the antagonistic setting just doesn't work anymore. They have to cooperate, they're both in the same boat."

Nonunion mini-mills such as Nucor Corp., said Mr. Locke, have very few layers of management, very few management perks, pay workers well and look for employee suggestions.

"I think [Big Steel] saw that lesson and thought they better do something similar, even though they are unionized. They better do some more cooperative arrangement or they'd be doomed," he said.

Duane R. Dunham, president of the Sparrows Point Division, agrees.

"Everybody beat up on each other over the years and they finally came to the realization, on everybody's part, that the way we were doing it, no one was being successful," he said. "The company wasn't being successful, jobs were being lost. The results were not favorable for anyone."

The foundation of the partnership is 24 "area committees" that preside over various departments and sections in the 2,500-acre plant in southeast Baltimore County, with membership evenly split between union and management. Meeting as often as once a week, they deal with day-to-day policy on the shop floor and farm specific operational problems out to problem-solving committees.

Over the area committees is the plant's "Joint Leadership Committee," with nine union and nine management officials. They meet monthly with the union and management leader from each area committee to go over detailed financial information about the plant's operation.

The point is to boost the effectiveness of the work force and the plants, said Curtis H. "Hank" Barnette, chairman and chief executive officer of Bethlehem.

"We want to have the best trained, best educated work force . . . to make our company profitable and successful," he said.

Now, after a year in operation, union and company officials at Sparrows Point point to increased efficiency and quality as well as an improved safety record among the 5,400 workers as showing that the experiment is producing results.

Injuries, for instance, dropped 37 percent during the first three months. And Mr. Dunham said 90 percent to 95 percent of customers' orders are now being delivered on time, a vast improvement over the previous level, which he would not disclose.

"I'm embarrassed to tell you," he said.

There have been other changes too. One is the creation of crew chiefs -- union personnel who are now in charge of various operations.

Supervisors in these areas now play the roles of coaches and coordinators, said Joseph J. Rosel Jr., the union partnership coordinator. "We're trying to get union people to lead their own union crews to do work without being told what to do."

And Mr. Burks, the linesman, says supervisors now listen, if grudgingly, to his suggestions.

Such innovations can be one of the pitfalls of arrangements like the partnership, said Marvin J. Levine, professor of industrial relations at the College of Business and Management at the University of Maryland.

"When it's done on the plant floor through this committee apparatus, a lot of supervisors have to give up their authority and share it equally with union people, or just plain workers," he said. "And human nature tell us that people don't willingly give up perceived power."

But Mr. Dunham points out that growing pains are natural.

"It's a learning process, there are no definitions and there is no program you can pull off the shelf and say this is how you do it," said Mr. Dunham. "We are clearly in uncharted waters."

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