If you want to get along in social situations, dont talk about politics or religion.
But heres another touchy subject that should be added to the list: organized labor.
Lots of folks will swear to you: The impending collapse of the American way of life can be blamed on unions.
Or, wait maybe management is to blame.
The answer depends on which group the speaker belongs to. Either way, its obvious from various strikes, lockouts and drawn-out negotiations that these two groups cant get along.
Or can they? This Labor Day weekend, we look at some northeast Indiana workplaces where mutual respect rules the day.
Tom Lewandowski, president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said cooperation between workers and managers is more common than many people think.
Most of the time, we get the job done together, he said. More often than not, its news when we dont.
The band plays on
At BAE Systems, hourly and salaried workers have formed a band that plays at fundraisers, including one for a union member who broke his back when he fell from a tree while deer hunting.
Jim Courtney, who organized the ensemble about three years ago, said the seven-person group would be just as happy to perform at a benefit for a supervisor who had a mountain of medical bills.
Band members dont have a us-vs.-them mindset, said Courtney, who is a production worker in BAEs development area and a union member.
Were all doing it for the same reason, he said, citing a love of music. I think the music transcends anything that might be different between people.
Kevin Prost, a BAE engineer and the bands drummer, doesnt define people by white collar or blue collar.
When I have a birthday party, I invite people from both sides of the fence, he said, adding that was true even before the band was formed. We all put on our pants the same way.
In fact, the only time the difference really becomes an issue is when they schedule rehearsals.
Members of IUE-CWA Local 901 are allowed to decline overtime. So they know when theyll be finished working next Tuesday, for example, if they choose to stick to their shifts scheduled end time.
But salaried employees have to stay on the job until its done. And maybe next Tuesday will be an unusually busy day – who knows?
Vicki Torres, a BAE assembler and one of two female vocalists, said the bands sound is kind of a mix. The T-Street Slackers play a little country, a little R&B and a little old-time rock n roll.
Included on the set list are versions of Whitney Houstons I Will Always Love You, Sara Evans Suds in the Bucket and a mashup, or blending, of Neil Diamonds Solitary Man and R.E.M.s This One Goes Out to the One I Love.
The bands next gig is the Megan Young & Andy Spencer Memorial Scholarship Benefit on Sept. 15.
BAEs hourly workers are members of an industrial union – they show up at the same location to work for the same employer day after day, year after year.
Meanwhile, members of the building trades can be assigned to numerous work sites during a single year.
Despite the lack of a long-term relationship, building contractors rely as much – or more – on union workers than factories do.
Tim Hearld, president and co-owner of Synergid Commercial, said his company works closely with the local carpenters and cement finishers unions.
When Hearld needs workers for a busy job site, he simply contacts the union and requests the skilled workers.
It really takes away the headache of soliciting applications and sorting through personnel, he said. Its a really good source of trained labor.
Hearld can hire workers for a day or a week. If he doesnt like someones attitude or work ethic, he can tell the person not to return the next day. He likes that flexibility.
The arrangement is much like the one some employers have with a temporary employment agency.
But, for some reason, people get scared when you say the word union, Hearld said.
When this business owner hears the word union, he thinks confidence and competence. Hearld knows he can bid on any contract and be confident workers will do the job right.
If I had to worry about keeping three (full-time) people busy or 30 people busy, Id look at different contracts, he said.
That could mean bidding on work that generates little or no profit just to keep employees busy. And it could mean losing out on higher-profit jobs that pop up in the meantime because the firm is already committed to other work, he said.
Contractors and building trades have great incentive to work well together, Hearld said, because neither could succeed without the other.
Animosity is real
Make no mistake, not all unionized workplaces are so harmonious. And that tension has spilled over into the general public at times.
Tom Hart, president of IUE-CWA Local 84802, represents hourly workers at Bluffton Motor Works. He recently got into a heated discussion with a stranger who criticized organized labor.
Theres still a bias against unions, he said. I know Im not going to convince them of the error of their ways, and theyre not going to change my mind.
At the Bluffton factory, its a different story.
These guys, they work with us pretty well, Hart said of the owners, who negotiated a new contract in March. All hourly workers will receive raises each of the three years of the agreements duration. In exchange, they agreed to accept up to four hours of mandatory overtime each week.
Between those negotiations, union leaders represent individual workers with concerns.
Most issues, Hart said, are settled without filing a grievance, which is the formal, three-step process of protesting how an employer has handled a situation. That move isnt necessary if management acknowledges and deals with complaints promptly.
Its really thrilling to be able to work things out without having to go to grievances or arbitration, he said. Arbitration is an expensive last resort.
In fact, the owners have spent millions on new equipment on the floor and a new roof on the building, Hart said. Such investments, he said, show their commitment to the business and creating a good working environment.
Lewandowski, head of the regions Central Labor Council, said the most productive workplaces are the ones in which the employer is interested in supporting the industry and getting the product out the door.
If profit or ego is driving managements decisions, he said, the two sides will butt heads.
But its not just owners and supervisors who can cause friction. Sometimes union leaders go haywire, too, he said.
We understand that.