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The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation.

The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation

IN THE PAST DECADE many analysts have taken a hard look at the role of trade unions in the American economy, stimulated largely by the highly visible decline of the unionized sector, and by the inability of American firms (and labor) to meet foreign competition successfully in many heavily unionized industries. The players affected by these dramatic changes - employees, unions, and government - have also responded to these circumstances in a number of interesting ways.

In this book, Professor Charles Heckscher of the Harvard Business School provides a very useful, detailed description of the initiatives taken by these principals in contending with the current state of American unionism. He then uses this overview to suggest a systematic restructuring of unionism to include a wider range of issues than are generally included within traditional industrial relations frameworks.

In the first four chapters of the book, Professor Heckscher documents the rise of industrial unions as bureaucratic, centralized, hierarchical organizations, to which he attributes three serious limitations. First, unions are associations of diverse interests trying to act like business organizations where congruence of interests is the norm. Second, unions are not very democratic organizations. Third, unions take a very legalistic approach to their role in the industrial relations environment, an approach reinforced by the NLRB and the courts in their interpretation and extension of labor law.

These three limitations are then used to explain the inability of unions to adapt successfully to various economic changes: a restructuring of markets, technological innovation, a declining role of unionized operatives in the labor force, and increasing "semiprofessional" employment (e.g. administrators, technicians, engineers, sales representatives). These semiprofessionals are characterized as not wanting union membership because they are typically not tied to a specific workplace. Instead, they "associate" around the types of problems confronted at some workplace, typically joining professional associations.

In chapters 5, 6 and 7 the author offers examples of recent experiments in participative management, including what he terms "managerialism" (every employee a manager involved in decisionmaking, usually with no unions present), the quality of work life (QWL) experiments, and recent attempts at even more extensive worker participation in decisionmaking. Professor Heckscher argues that the lessons of "managerialism" and QWL experiments are: (1) Effective participative management requires less hierarchical lines of authority than are typically observed in large, unionized firms; (2) problem solving must be accomplished in a participative manner, emphasizing reasoned influence rather than the use of power; and (3) job descriptions must become more flexible.

The author's most extensive discussion of participative management centers on an experience begun in 1976 at a Shell chemical plant in Sarnia, Canada. The Energy and Chemical Workers' Union was heavily involved in planning the facility, and all workers share responsibility for managerial tasks such as work assignment and scheduling, as well as monitoring and adjusting the plant's fully automated processes. Unlike previous QWL experiments, the Shell-Sarnia arrangement has remained effective, and has in fact improved its performance since 1978.

According to the author, the most important aspect of this case is its industrial relations structure, in which only wage rates and basic employee guarantees are negotiated in the traditional manner. Omitted from formal collective bargaining agreements are details of implementation, including pay raises, work scheduling, working hours, and grievance procedures. Disputes over these issues are handled through informal negotiations and through a work practices document that is continuously updated in ongoing negotiations between management and the union.

In the last six chapters of the book Professor Heckscher outlines in careful detail the prerequisites of his new system of industrial relations that, building on the lessons of the Shell-Sarnia case, offer the possibility of a revival of American unionism. The first of these requirements is a bill of employee rights, including due process, free information about the organization, free speech, and free association in any form. This bill of rights would replace the body of labor laws currently used.

The second requirement of the author's "new unionism" is the development of "associational" unionism. This system of democratic representation replaces the rigid uniformity of industrial unions with coordinated diversity, which could capture the interest and loyalty of the "associational," semi-professional workforce.

Finally, the author describes how the development of associational unionism will require more complex, multilateral negotiation techniques than are commonly observed in collective bargaining situations. These new techniques will operate within the broad bill of employee rights and will facilitate the flexible, participative form of management-labor relations observed in the Shell-Sarnia case.

In this intriguing and often insightful presentation, Professor Heckscher provides American unions and management with the ground rules for a dramatic and progressive revamping of our industrial relations system. His characterizations of the present system are carefully documented with references to a very broad industrial relations literature. However, when the author's remarks shift to his program for the future, they become much more speculative. This change is unavoidable, of course, since his "new unionism" requires substantial change in practically every facet of industrial relations, from the union's role in strategic management, to the unionization of white collar workers, to a new role for the NLRB. However, aside from a few optimistic references to the Shell-Sarnia case, Professor Heckscher is generally unable to offer very convincing evidence for the eventual adoption of his framework.

Business economists interested in industrial relations issues will find this a very interesting book, in which academic scholarship and the practical concerns of the workplace are skillfully combined and presented. The author's prescriptions for the future are thoughtful, provocative, and quite challenging, but only time will tell the effects of his nostrums for American labor and the American economy.
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Author:Koeller, C. Timothy
Publication:Business Economics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1989
Words:944
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