Something special is happening with the members of the Michigan State Utility Workers Council (MSUWC) who work at Consumers Energy. Members from vastly different backgrounds, who used to think they had little in common, are finding ways to have conversations on difficult subjects like politics, race, and religion.
Some may ask, why go there? Aren’t these topics normally considered taboo in our culture and left well enough alone? I’d answer, sometimes yes, but not in the workplace when political divisions or resentments create a toxic environment that gets in the way of safety and union solidarity.
MSUWC members spent decades building an exemplary safety culture at Consumers Energy. In recent years, they began to see cracks in that success as workers weren’t always talking and looking out for each other’s backs. When leadership took a deeper look into why this was happening, they found that tension and lack of skills in having difficult conversations were eroding the safety culture as well as the union’s unity.
With the right leadership, we are showing that we can solve the toughest problems and break down barriers that stand in the way of building unity. Everyone needs to feel included and be heard.
They took a proactive approach to tackling this problem, working with Consumers to develop a collaboration between front-line union members and corporate on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) as a way to build member trust and restore safety and solidarity. The program defines diversity as more than race and gender; it’s thought, culture, attitude. And it’s all inclusive, with no “wrong” categories or perspectives.
Many UWUA members have had to endure company-led DE&I programs that have noble goals but are sometimes painful to sit through and don’t have positive results. These experiences can give DE&I a bad reputation and turn people off from the subject. DE&I then becomes a way to further divide us, instead of uniting us.
The MSUWC’s approach is that diversity is what makes our union strong, so let’s celebrate it. MSUWC “Inclusion Champions” are finding ways for members to have conversations that, for example, enable a white male from rural Michigan to build workplace trust with a black male from the inner-city and someone from the LGBTQ+ community, as well. The conversations are often passionate, but always respectful.
The program works because it finds ways to utilize members’ diverse backgrounds and thoughts productively — and not let them stand in the way of unity within our union and safety in our workplaces. To date, one thousand Consumers employees — union as well as non-union — have participated in the training with near universal positive feedback. The plan is to have all of Consumers’ roughly 9,000 employees trained by 2025.
The DE&I training shows that when workers take leadership, they can find solutions that work. What’s happening now at Consumers ensures that regardless of our differences, UWUA members will always stand — and fight — together on issues like our contracts, safety, racism, civil rights, industry funding and regulation.
With the right leadership, we are showing that we can solve the toughest problems and break down barriers that stand in the way of building unity. Everyone needs to feel included and be heard. The collaboration between the MSUWC and Consumers Energy on DE&I is showing us ways to ensure that all members are heard.
Throughout UWUA history, our union family has never backed down from a challenge. This DE&I journey is no different. Together, we will make it happen!