Can you eliminate personnel to cut costs?

A team of carpenters on special projects in the maintenance department was composed of two senior men and a helper. The helper's job consisted largely of lifting components, fetching materials from the supply room, and making minor adjustments.
By Raymond Dreyfack December 1, 1999

A team of carpenters on special projects in the maintenance department was composed of two senior men and a helper. The helper’s job consisted largely of lifting components, fetching materials from the supply room, and making minor adjustments.

When a cost-cutting drive was announced by the president, Plant Engineer Bob Shaffer and a systems expert assessed maintenance operations in search of workers or tasks that could be eliminated without impairing efficiency. When they viewed the carpenter work team in action, the systems man suggested it to Shaffer as an opportunity for cost reduction.

“After the helper performs his simple functions, he stands around idle the rest of the time,” he pointed out. “The senior guys don’t have to be prima donnas; they can do the grunt tasks as well as the helper. His job can be dispensed with.”

Shaffer agreed and the helper was assigned elsewhere.

The helper, supported by the carpenters and plant steward, protested the team reduction.

“For one thing,” the steward pointed out, “the tasks done by the helper aren’t included in the senior men’s job classification. For another, three guys on the team constitutes a long established practice. For a third, with the helper eliminated the two remaining men have to work their butts off.”

The plant engineer refused to back down.

“You won’t get away with this,” the union man promised.

Question: Can management do away with the helper’s job?

Expert’s opinion: Shaffer phoned the company’s labor relations attorney for his reading on the dispute. Luke Adams replied, “I’d suggest you reinstate the helper. Fighting the union on this could cost more than you’ll save. Management normally has a right to determine crew size, but you’ll probably run into trouble doing away with a long-standing practice unilaterally. It sounds like a good item for negotiation when contract renewal time rolls around.”