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Group fosters labor-management communications


Joyce D. Miller, vice president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, based in New York, has a busy schedule.

Also president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Ms. Miller has been a union organizer for 30 years.

But she found time recently to attend a talk by an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to limit leafleting by unions on company premises.

The talk was at her local chapter of the Industrial Relations Research Association, a national membership organization founded in 1947 to address labor-management issues in a non-confrontational setting.

The audience included managers, lawyers, academicians, mediators, human resource professionals and government officials.

"The Industrial Relations Research Association is not an advocacy group; it focuses on research," said Ms. Miller, a member for 10 years. "It broadens your thinking because it's one of the few places where labor-management issues are examined and discussed unemotionally. There's no other group like it in the country."

Almost five decades ago, when the organization was founded, colleges began offering courses in labor and industrial relations. Corporations, unions and government were beginning to hire labor specialists.

The term "industrial relations" has been replaced by "human resources" and "employee relations." Job opportunities for these professionals are projected by the U.S. Department of Labor to grow faster than the average by the end of the century.

Starting salaries in this varied profession often range from $30,000 to $40,000 annually.

With some bitter labor-management scenarios being played out, such as the United Auto Workers union's recent strike at Caterpillar Inc., the challenge to industrial relations professionals has increased.

That's why an organization such as the research association, devoted to cooperative labor relations, can play an important role. The national association, which has headquarters at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has 4,800 members.

"We've demonstrated for 45 years the importance of labor, management and neutrals keeping open the lines of communication, sharing new ideas, being willing to listen to the other side and forming your own opinion," said Kay Hutchison, the association's administrator, who has master's degrees in industrial relations and business administration.

A former government mediator and self-employed arbiter, Ms. Hutchison has been a member of the association since 1970 and became director last year. She emphasized that one-third of the members are academicians. Although the group does not fund research, "it serves as a conduit for it," she said.

Its 1992 agenda includes a study of union-management cooperation, comparisons of drug-testing programs in union and non-union companies and a look at strategies for revitalizing the labor movement.

The commitment of the membership to learning and growing together is indicative, Ms. Hutchison said, that "even if you view union-management as adversarial, there is a recognition that you have to be able to understand the other person's point of view."

Ernie Savoie, director of employee development at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., is president of the research group. Mr. Savoie, who has a master's degree in industrial relations, grew up with an early awareness of labor-management issues in the textile-manufacturing town Lawrence, Mass.

"A lot of work we've done at Ford with the United Auto Workers on joint-management issues such as health and safety programs became much better because of contacts we made through the association and the ability to talk to people more directly," Mr. Savoie said.

Ford is known as a leader in labor-management relations, and Mr. Savoie's department is responsible for drafting policies in education, development and training areas.

Sergio A. Delgado, commissioner of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Hinsdale, Ill., comes from a labor family. "We used to have a lot of discussions at the kitchen table about unions," said Mr. Delgado, who has an undergraduate degree and a master's degree in industrial relations. The service has 200 federal mediators nationwide, eight in the Chicago district office.

Mr. Delgado, treasurer of the Chicago chapter of the Industrial Relations Research Association, said the organization has provided him with helpful information and contacts.

"It's important for the different sides not to be cozy but to learn to respect each other," he said.

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