August 28, 2019

When labor and management work side by side

From war-era labor-management committees to today’s unit-based teams, cooperation between labor and management brings innovation and progress to Kaiser Permanente.

Article about the role of labor-management committees at the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards, August 6, 1943.

Two Kaiser Richmond Shipyard #4 employees circa 1944

Two Kaiser Richmond Shipyard #4 employees, “Labor Management,” January 4, 1944. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park.

During World War II, American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser’s job was building ships to win the war. Everything else — the housing and transportation infrastructure required to accommodate the influx of workers, even the incredible health care program that is his greatest surviving legacy — was a secondary, but necessary, part of the deal. And it was accomplished with a remarkable level of respect and cooperation between labor and management.

In an article titled “Class Bitterness Most Serious Problem for Labor, Management” in the Oakland Tribune September 9, 1943, Kaiser said “There is no such thing as labor relations. There are only human relations. You are dealing with people, not impersonal problems of finance or electronics. There are 3 sides to every argument — your side, my side, and the right side.”

Cooperation was pragmatic. Since Kaiser’s approach to building ships — like products in an assembly line — was new and evolving, there was an urgent need for innovation and shop-floor creativity. Workers were always coming up with more effective and efficient approaches, and rewards ranged from war bonds to the right to christen a ship.

This cooperation was the task of labor-management committees, established in early 1942 at the behest of the War Production Board. When the committees were first set up, some saw it as a plan by industry to throttle unions, but the WPB directive stated: “The plan is not to further any special interests of any group nor to promote company unions or to interfere with bargaining machinery.”

Labor-Management Award Winners, November 25, 1943.

“Labor-Management Award Winners,” November 25, 1943.

Since production improvement involved many things besides mere mechanics, the committees also concerned themselves with matters such as housing, food, transportation, and morale. Valuable suggestions were shared with other shipyards, and by the end of 1944 over 3,000 ideas had been put forward that saved an estimated $45 million and 31 million labor-hours.

Today’s health care work site may not be the war-driven frenzy of the Kaiser shipyards, but it still relies on workers’ wisdom to serve Kaiser Permanente members through its unit-based teams. These are groups of front-line employees, managers, physicians, and dentists whose work brings them together naturally and who collaborate with one another to improve member and patient care.  The Kaiser Permanente Labor Management Partnership’s UBTs continue the tradition of healthy competition and innovation to achieve results.

Recent examples of successes include a UBT at Kaiser Permanente’s Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington, D.C. that adjusted to a big jump in Kaiser Permanente member enrollment and improved patient care at the same time;  a team at Colorado’s Ridgeline Behavioral Health Center, which reduced the number of unnecessary emergency department visits while still ensuring patient care; and a Sacramento pharmacy that helped members reduce wait times.

Henry J. Kaiser’s vision of labor-management cooperation was channeled by Harry Caulfield, MD, a previous executive director of The Permanente Medical Group, when Dr. Caulfield described the first National Partnership Agreement signed in 1997: “When we work together, then we’re able to progress together. But without each other, neither one of us will be able to accomplish anything near what we could accomplish together.”