Roads boss should fix poor morale

Monday, August 17, 1998

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Butler County Engineer's Department fixes things. Pave roads? Repair bridges? Salt icy streets? No problem.

But when it comes to fixing a complete communications breakdown and taking care of its people, the department acts as if it doesn't have a clue.

After talking with the parties involved, I've come to the conclusion that the engineer's department is guided by the motto:

"If it's broke, smash it to bits."

Twenty-eight workers who salt streets in the winter and repair roads in the summer are mad at the department's boss, County Engineer Dean Foster. They claim he does not make good on promised pay raises and runs the department like a tyrant, reprimanding workers for petty offenses and providing a measure of job security akin to a snowball's chance at a backyard barbecue.

As one salt truck driver told me, "He treats us like dirty, rotten stinking dogs." The truck driver asked me not to use his name. He fears for his job.

Drastic acts

The road crew workers were so upset, they felt they had no other choice than to ask the Teamsters Union to come in and help straighten out this mess. Their request to join Teamsters Local 100 comes to a vote Sept. 2.

After the county engineer got wind of the road crews' request to organize and become union workers, he fired off a memo -- excerpted last week in the Enquirer -- to the department's supervisors.

Taking a my-way-or-the-highway stance, Mr. Foster's memo informed the supervisors that their jobs were on the line. Heads would roll and performance reviews would suffer if the supervisors didn't prove their loyalty to their boss by finding out what was bothering the workers and making "an unbelievable effort" to see that the union was voted down.

"If there is a bargaining unit voted in," the engineer's memo concluded, "then I have the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time."

And have a nice day.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t

With one strongly worded memo Dean Foster became a dual poster boy for workers who hate their bosses and management types who hate unions.

His memo called the Teamsters, "the most corrupt union in the history of America. Gangsters, hoodlums, hooligans, bums, street trash, and the very worst of a labor force."

Not being a joiner, I'm no fan of unions, especially one with a history of using baseball bats as bargaining tools.

But, after talking with county employees who drive the salt trucks and who supervise the road crews, I can see how these guys feel like they need someone to go to bat for them.

The sad thing is, it didn't have to come to this. Dean Foster could have fixed this problem before it spun out of control. He had the time. He told me so himself:

"When I heard about this organizational effort was two weeks prior to the official notification."

As soon as the county engineer heard about the workers' desire to join a union, he called in his team of supervisors. He asked them what they had heard through the grapevine. They gave him mixed signals. So, he told them: "You supervisors are supposed to know what these guys are doing, and you're not telling me."

The engineer admitted to me, "from that standpoint, there was a communications problem."

But that problem could have been solved. A lot can happen in two weeks. The county engineer had 28 employees to talk with. The heck with calling in supervisors and ordering them to find out what's bugging the workers. Talk to the troops yourself.

And do it one on one. Invite the workers into your office. Spend an hour with each one. In a 40-hour work week, you'd still have 12 hours left over.

Dean Foster told me three times: "We've got an excellent group of guys here."

Prove it. If these guys are so excellent, treat them with respect. It's the one thing everyone deserves, but few receive.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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