How Communications Helped Avert a Strike
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How Communications Helped Avert a Strike

When the Dow Chemical Company’s Michigan Operations site began the three-month collective bargaining process with United Steelworkers of America in December 2000, ongoing tensions and a contentious history made a work stoppage an extremely likely outcome.

Paul Holmes

When the Dow Chemical Company’s Michigan Operations site began the three-month collective bargaining process with United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 12075 in December 2000, ongoing tensions and a contentious history made a work stoppage an extremely likely outcome. The Company enlisted the help of its agencies – Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide for employee communications and Ketchum for media and community relations – to develop and execute communications that would help bring about contract ratification.

The multi-agency, multi-disciplinary communications team worked together on-site in Midland, Michigan to develop communications that would reach not only the 1,525 bargained-for employees, but also all employees via different vehicles. The team also worked collaboratively on materials to help Dow articulate its position.

Ultimately, the comprehensive communications program greatly influenced the USWA Local 12075’s decision to ratify the contract. In fact, union leadership went so far as to site communications as the reason its membership voted against leadership’s recommendations not to ratify.

Challenge/Opportunity

Dow sought to win concessions in the new contract to make the site more competitive through outsourcing and restructured job mobility – both sources of disagreement going into negotiations.  The historically contentious relationship between the Company and the union included a six-month, violent strike in 1974 – and both feared a similar outcome. In addition, the confrontational attitude of local union leadership, coupled with dismissals and disciplinary actions taken against employees the previous summer for e-mail abuse contributed to a growing environment of tension and uncertainty as the contract expiration date of February 12, 2001 approached and the threat of a strike became very real.

The team faced the additional challenges posed by the Company’s and the union’s agreement to a “no news blackout,” as well as tight restrictions by the NLRA that governed the introduction of “new” communications vehicles to target employees.

Communications aimed to illustrate the positive impact of a potential contract settlement on Michigan Operations’ drive to improve its productivity, efficiency and safety, and connect this impact to the larger goal of improved global competitiveness and long-term site growth. 

Specifically, the communications objectives were to:
· Use external and internal communications to help prevent a work stoppage.
· Create awareness and build support for the Company’s position and business direction.
· Foster improved labor-management relations through increased collaboration and communication.

Research

To help focus the communications strategy throughout negotiations and for the next five years, the team commissioned a survey of all site employees. The survey provided Michigan Operations leadership with specific feedback to help identify major issues and determine the most effective ways to reach employees. Key findings and observations included:
· Overall opinion of Dow and Michigan Operations was negative, primarily because of a perceived lack of concern for employees by the site management.
· The working environment, however, was perceived to be fairly positive, with a majority of employees indicating that they interacted well with their co-workers and felt positive about working as teams.
· Employees recognized that union leadership and management did not work well together.
· Employees understood that competitiveness was a key concern for the site.
· Employees were proud to work at Michigan Operations, but did not believe that the site commanded the respect it deserved from the rest of the Company.

Strategy

Clearly and consistently articulate the Company’s position on issues and its commitment to reach contract agreement.

Ensure that all employees understand the global competitive landscape in which the site operates and the steps necessary to keep the site competitive.

Overcome employee distrust of and pessimism towards Company leadership by frequent and honest discussion and communication.

Consistently monitor employee, media and community opinion to ensure that communications continually address audience needs, questions and perceptions.

The primary audiences identified were bargained-for and salaried employees at the site.  Other audiences included Michigan Operations site leadership (unit leaders to whom bargained-for and salaried employees reported), employees’ families, local media and community leaders.

Execution/Tactics

The integrated team developed a comprehensive communications plan (key messages, Q&A, talking points, advertisements, employee and community leader letters) to deal with multiple scenarios including a strike, lockout, continuation of negotiations or a tentative agreement. Specific tactics included:
· Developed a “Contract Discussion” Intranet site focused exclusively on contract discussions and used it to communicate information on the negotiation process to all employees. Updated the site on a regular basis during the final weeks of negotiations. This Intranet site’s main page received 23,978 hits during the negotiation process.
· Developed key messages, a fact sheet, a glossary of business terms, a site history, contingency plans and Q&As.
· Created a white paper called “The Case for Change,” which outlined the site’s need to improve productivity, efficiency and safety in order to compete and succeed.  The site leadership used this document in employee presentations, media interviews, on the Intranet and in printed materials.
· Conducted training sessions for unit leaders and frontline supervisors to outline their responsibilities, share key messages and dos & don’ts, and describe procedures for handling employee questions.
· Created a template for use by the negotiating team to communicate the progress of contract talks on specific issues on a daily basis.
· Drafted backgrounders on key issues (such as job outsourcing and paid committeemen) that arose during the negotiations.
· Conducted media training for the site leader and chief spokespeople.
· Held meetings with the editorial staff of the local paper, The Midland Daily News, to state the site’s position on the negotiations.
· Drafted letters describing the site’s “last best offer” and Dow’s “Case for Change” and mailed these letters to employees’ homes and to community leaders.
· Created and placed an advertisement on the “Case for Change” in the Midland Daily News.
· Created and placed an advertisement explaining the site’s “last best offer” in the Midland Daily News, the Saginaw News, and the Bay City Times.
· Created a “dark” web site to be activated only in the event of a work stoppage, detailing work policies and procedures pertaining to salaried employees.

Obstacles Overcome

· Union leadership’s strong opposition to contact ratification
· Agreement to a “no news blackout.”
· NLRA restrictions governing acceptable negotiating period communications.
· Strong community involvement and support for the union.

Evaluation/Measurement of Success

Members of USWA Local 12075 voted to approve the labor contract on February 15, 2001, despite the fact the entire union bargaining team opposed ratification of the Company’s last and final offer.

The union cited Michigan Operations’ extensive employee communications efforts as a reason its members chose to vote to ratify the contract.

Media relations efforts generated 21 print articles and 48 broadcast stories covering the negotiations.

Union members approved the contract by a substantial margin, according to anecdotal information.

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