Last year saw no shortage of conflict between labor and management, with half a million American workers on strike at some point during the year, double the figure of 2022 and four times that of 2021. Executives have made headlines for divisive rhetoric, unfair labor practices, and charges of union busting.

This adversarial model of labor-management relations doesn’t have to be the default, says Christy Yoshitomi, a commissioner for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services (FCMS), a neutral federal agency that provides free services to both labor and management, including training, mediation, and arbitration. The goal of each of these services, Yoshitomi explains, is to prepare both employees and organized labor “to engage and have a really good foundation for the relationship,” one marked by communication and trust rather than opacity and conflict. When these relationships are successful, labor can even be a partner to leadership in making culture change within an organization.

We spoke with Yoshitomi, who often works with labor management committees—groups of representatives from both sides that meet regularly to address shared concerns and projects—about what that culture-focused collaboration can look like, and what tactics from these groups can teach leaders about building trust between labor and management more broadly. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

How can nonprofits serve as a model for labor-management partnerships?

In the private sector, you’re not going to have as much willingness for organizations to talk about employee input into hiring or how the organization actually functions. What I found in the nonprofit world is they’re willing to talk about these items—DEI issues, sexual harassment, creating a safe work environment, the four-day workweek, looking at work-life balance.

Nonprofits are more willing to talk about these more progressive issues—not just as policy or ‘Yeah, we’re going to have this,’ but to actually put it into their collective bargaining contract. They’re willing to sit down with the union and say, ‘We need to negotiate about what our culture looks like.’ Some in the private sector would not be willing necessarily to go down that road. We’re starting to see that break through a little bit.

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Are there examples you can share of labor and management partnering to change culture?

There’s one project with a union and an employer where they’re trying to make a cultural change around sexual harassment. It started years ago with #MeToo, and it’s developed into this really great partnership where they’re able to implement cultural change together.

There’s another one we’re working on where there’s a lot of absenteeism, and labor and management are working together to figure out, how do we handle this? That’s not within the collective bargaining realm, but really great things can happen outside of a collective bargaining agreement to help an organization improve their efficiency, their product, their effectiveness, by labor and management being able to collaborate with each other.

When people can say, ‘I’m important here. You really value my opinion and what we have to say,’ you’re going to find a happier, more interested workforce. People are willing to put in extra time, they’re willing to go out of their way a little bit more. Versus with people who do not feel valued, that really breaks everything down and the company has a hard time moving forward or progressing with the times. When leaders have that union with them to be able to help them move along, they find it much easier.

When you encounter workplaces with conflict or mistrust between labor and management, what tactics do you recommend for building trust between those two parties?

When I talk about trust, I emphasize the little tiny things. Are my actions going to align with what I said I was going to do? Will I go a little bit out of my way to go over and say ‘hi’ versus just walking by somebody? In trainings, one thing I encourage is to bring food back and forth. When you have your labor management committees, labor provides food one time. Management provides food the next time. It makes it a little bit more casual, like everybody’s human.

This interview was conducted as part of a joint project between Charter and the Aspen Institute’s Business Roundtable on Organized Labor. For more, look out for our upcoming playbook on new approaches to labor-management relationships.

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