Changing Culture in a Union Environment

In our book, Unleashing Human Energy through Culture Change, we describe how Don Rust and his management team shifted the organizational culture at the GM Tonawanda Engine Plant from one of hostility with its union and workers to a productive, highly energized work culture.  We believe there are lessons to be learned from this experience. For example, how did management get the union’s cooperation? How vital was the union in bringing workers on board with changes? We will try to answer these questions, using the culture change at the Tonawanda Engine Plant 35 years ago as an example.  In our next article, we will offer a view of a more recent culture change, at Cutco Corporation in Olean, New York. There are many parallels between these two cases in which management and the union joined forces to convert a negative culture into a positive one.

The first challenge Don faced at the Tonawanda Engine Plant was management establishing credibility with union leaders. Long before he was transferred to the plant, Don had established his reputation as a change agent, listening to workers and making changes to improve their work environment.  He showed a sincere interest in workers based on his belief that, deep down, they wanted the company to be successful. At the Tonawanda Engine Plant, union leaders saw him as approachable and began seeking him out to request changes to improve working conditions. With every positive change, union leaders became more trusting of Don and his team.  They reciprocated his belief and trust in them with greater cooperation and a willingness to go the extra mile to make the plant successful. This was clearly seen when the plant was in crisis, without a union contract and with no work in the pipeline. Union workers were invited to sit down with management to chart out a course of action to keep the plant open.  Within weeks, this new partnership led to a labor contract and a commitment from GM for two new engines to be built at the plant. The details are laid out in our book. 

Many lessons were learned from this experience.  The first lesson learned is that every culture change needs a champion, a change agent who has credibility with all participants.  This credibility must be earned through action. It begins with the belief in your people and trust that they will support the goals of the organization.  Without these beliefs and actions, it is doubtful that any change will be possible. 

The second lesson learned is that inviting union leaders and managers to be partners in the success of the plant can ignite a spirit of cooperation that will energize the workforce.  In previous articles, we have given examples of how this partnership led to higher productivity and the setting of a world record of engines produced in one day.  

The third lesson learned is that once union leaders and managers work together on common business challenges and opportunities, a mutual respect for each will emerge.  These two often adversarial groups found a common purpose at the plant: to produce high-quality engines in a work environment that made them all feel good about their work and the way they were treated. 

The fourth lesson learned was there was no turning back.  After years of hostility and being treated with disdain by management, union leaders and workers completely bought into making their plant a success.  Being on a winning team meant everything to them; it set the stage for being awarded continuous work from GM headquarters. And, there is no question that workers felt a personal pride about working at the Tonawanda Engine Plant.  The winning combination of creating a culture built on belief in its people, trust, and being treated with respect at the same time as experiencing the success of being a world class engine plant was contagious. It provided the fuel and momentum for future success. To this day, the Tonawanda Engine Plant retains its positive culture and winning attitude. 

The role of the union is an interesting one.  We believe the union leaders were essential players in promoting culture change.  They were instrumental in obtaining the cooperation of workers. Their leadership and commitment rallied workers and lent credibility to the change initiatives.  They could have easily killed any change effort by management. Instead, they became partners in creating the new culture of the plant.

Purchase Unleashing Human Energy through Culture Change, here:

Marie Pazych