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Democracy at Work: Changing World Markets and the Future of Unions.

Do unions still have roles to play in advanced societies competing in the modem global economy? For Lowell Turner, a union activist turned academic, the answer is definitely yes. But when he addresses the question empirically in his book, he gives a highly qualified answer. His finding, based on cross-national labor comparisons of six developed countries, is that "unions are not necessarily a spent force in industrial societies."

Turner believes that unions can, and in some important cases do, remain viable forces even under intensified world competition, influencing companies to reorganize both production and work. The formula for union success in today's industrial world, he argues, has two elements. First, unions must be integrated in the process of management decisionmaking on imperative new issues affecting workers, particularly the reorganization of work. Second, integration must be supported by legislation or by a "cohesive" labor movement, or (preferably) by both.

Turner's findings are largely from his research in West Germany and the United States, supplemented by brief analyses of the labor situation in Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and Sweden. He examines and assesses labor-management relations in five auto plants in West Germany and five in the United States, all faced with intense international competition. He focuses on how the two sides, at the plant level and at the industry level, cope with the challenge of making work more efficient, and describes how the unions have fared in maintaining worker loyalty.

Turner concludes that West Germany's industrial model, with labor as a partner, did much better in meeting the challenge than did the U.S. industrial relations system. In the 1980' s, IG Metall, the union representing German auto workers, departing from a common union philosophy of "letting management manage," gradually developed its vision of work organization, and succeeded in implementing it through works councils, the plant-level worker organizations that by law are separate from the union but which its members usually control.

During this difficult process, IG Metall's membership has remained stable, while that of the United Auto Workers (UAW) has declined, largely because of nonunionized Japanese transplants and auto parts suppliers. In its struggles, IG Metall has two advantages that the UAW does not have: it receives strong backing from national legislation institutionalizing worker representation and from a more cohesive national labor movement. For example, the German Federation of Labor has 16 affiliates, while the AFL-CIO has more than 90. Together, these factors stifle any plans that German antiunion employers might have to launch the kind of "union avoidance" campaigns that are more and more common with U.S. management.

The dual advantages have origins not explained in Turner's analysis. Early in the postwar period, prodemocratic West German unionists began to erect a new labor structure, and they did so for a much more cohesive geographical area-only about the size of the State of Wyoming. The new political leaders, anxious to have a democratic society, favored a labor-management institutional framework that took into account the needs and voices of workers. Despite ideological differences even within the labor movement, there evolved an unprecedented system of "codetermination," most importantly at the plant level, that sharply distinguished the country's economic system from the recent past and from the Communist model in the east. For West German industrialists, accepting a place for unions in a democratic social order was much preferable to the frightening state-controlled alternative so close by in East Germany.

Turner recognizes that events since 1989, especially the demise of the Communist threat and the unification of Germany, have made predictions, even about the country's prized industrial model, more difficult than in the past. Nevertheless, he believes that, in Germany and elsewhere, "the prospects for successful industrial adjustment [to the demands of the world marketplace] may in important ways hinge on a stable industrial relations settlement that incorporates unions."

However, an alternative type of labor relations, the unabashedly authoritarian model such as is common in Asia (and not studied by Turner), cannot be dismissed. It does have features that can gain in attractiveness under heightened competitive pressures. In his new book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama writes: "There is considerable empirical evidence to indicate that market-oriented authoritarian modernizers [such as the regime in Singapore] do better economically than their democratic counterparts."

As Turner shows, an industrial relations system that incorporates effective organizations representing workers can succeed when there is a consensus to make it work. But even where it now exists, that consensus could collapse under heightened competition from Asian models that, from a purely economic standpoint, are more successful.
COPYRIGHT 1992 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Author:Senser, Robert A.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:762
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