Labor-Management Partnerships: Stronger Together

by Roger Goodson and Matt Bartolo
Above: Brand Ambassadors and union employees Dan Barrett and Al Huff attend a local career fair.

“At the end of the day, we all want the same things—to be able to go to work in a safe environment and provide for our families. We want to work for a thriving company that cares about its employees. We have the same goals, regardless if we are a union or non-union employee. We are more alike than different, and that’s why we decided long ago to work together.”

Illinois American Water has about 450 employees throughout the state. More than 300 of them are represented by a labor union. In the Peoria District, about 80 employees work at the water treatment plant, in the office, in the meter shop or out in the field, and about 90 percent are skilled union employees. These employees and their knowledge are critical to the business. This is why it is a priority at American Water to foster positive labor-management partnerships.

Nationally, the company hosts an annual Labor Management Conference to bring together union leaders, union employees and company leadership. In 2017, Illinois American Water took this concept across the state, hosting similar local conferences in Peoria, Champaign, Woodridge and Belleville. Union and non-union employees are also involved daily on local issues.

Listening to and engaging the workforce is critical. The employees in the field are the ones using the equipment, talking to customers and getting the job done—they naturally have the knowledge of how to best serve customers, work more safely and operate more efficiently. By working together and celebrating success, labor and management have fostered a partnership for safety, inclusion and investment.

Safety is #1
At Illinois American Water, safety is everyone’s job and it’s the number-one priority. Every employee—even those not working in the field—is empowered to stop unsafe work activities. If an employee witnesses an unsafe act or work environment, they are authorized to stop the work until the safety issues can be resolved. If challenged by another employee or contractor, the employee shows a Stop Work Authority card, located on the back of their badge. An employee will not be disciplined or penalized for stopping unsafe work. Stop Work Authority reinforces Illinois American Water’s business values and commitment to safety.

In addition, the company and union leaders have established a Safety Hero Program to recognize safety leadership. Local safety committees, comprised mostly of union employees, nominate a local hero or heroes at their monthly meetings. This peer-to-peer recognition is an important cornerstone of the program. Safety Hero stories are shared across the state to encourage similar actions.

Just recently, PALM-TRICON recognized Illinois American Water employee Larry Mitchell with a Safety Award, while Gary “Moose” Campbell received the Excellence in Labor/Management Award and Ron Cook received the Craftsmanship Award.

Every employee also receives continuous training to ensure they have the knowledge necessary to do their job safely. In 2018, every Illinois American Water employee will complete 40 hours of training, with half of those hours focused on safety. Safety fairs are also held to introduce new equipment and engage local vendors.

Employee Inclusion
Our employees are our best asset. They have a passion for what they do. To foster this passion, Illinois American Water created a Brand Ambassador program. While every employee is an ambassador of the company, this program helps to formally engage champion employees.

Brand Ambassadors attend community events, speak at career fairs and lead internal initiatives. In 2018, the group, comprised of about 10 percent of Illinois American Water’s workforce, is focusing even more on diversity and inclusion. In Peoria, Brand Ambassadors are leading efforts to partner with the Illinois Central College Highway Construction Careers Training Program, which was implemented to increase the number of minorities, women and disadvantaged individuals working in construction.

The company has also partnered with the NAACP and Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce to support diverse vendors and suppliers, as well as ensure minority candidates for employment. At American Water, diversity is celebrated. It is a key component to our success.

Critical Investments
American Water employees know that for every dollar of operations and maintenance costs saved, the company can invest $7 without impacting customer bills. The more the company is able to invest, the stronger the community water system and workforce.

One example of working smarter includes a “Yellow Belt” project in the Peoria District. Production employees installed permanent submersible pumps, a standby generator and other equipment critical to handling water when the Illinois River floods. The permanent infrastructure reduces flood preparation from more than three days to just three hours, as well as reducing operational and maintenance costs.

Proactive and prudent investment also supports the local economy, including head-of-household jobs. When Illinois American Water is hiring additional team members, the hiring team engages union leaders in the interview process. Union participation in the decision-making process increases hiring success. Current employees can tell when someone speaks their language and has experience in the field. This effort also creates buy-in among employees, and those involved take pride in their new coworkers being successful.

Stronger Together
When it comes to employer/employee relationships, it can be easy to fall into an “us vs. them” mentality. This isn’t the case at Illinois American Water. All of our employees work together to ensure a culture of partnership. We know that at the end of the day, we all want the same thing and have the same goals. We are stronger when we work together. iBi

Roger Goodson is senior manager, Operations and Production, for Illinois American Water. Matt Bartolo is secretary/treasurer of Laborers’ Local #165 and president of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council.

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