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The vast new labor beat: reconfiguration of workplace issues offers opportunities for media to expand its coverage.

Reconfiguration of Workplace Issues Offers Opportunities For Media to Expand Its Coverage

Louis Stark of The New York Times introduced me to the labor beat during the eras of the War Labor Board (World War II) and the National Wage Stabilization Board (Korean War), both involving stabilization of wages and salaries and resolution of labor-management disputes. I worked directly with the chairman and vice-chairman of the War Labor Board, and President Truman appointed me a public member of the Korean Board.

Stark was interested in the way organizations worked, the way key people thought and behaved, and the circumstances shaping decisions and their timing. An isolated spot story was not his major interest; his quest was understanding. He was a respected expert in a field of strong labor and management personalities and intense labor-management conflict and related political strife.

In the 1970's as director of the Cost of Living Council for President Nixon, as Secretary of Labor for President Ford, and Chair of the Pay Advisory Committee for President Carter, I initiated a weekly seminar for regulars of the Washington press. The first 20 minutes were devoted to presenting a written paper on an underlying problem or development in process that was not spot news. The purpose was to provide systematic factual background for emerging economic and labor-management issues. This period was followed by the usual give-and-take of a press conference on the issues of the day.

Now, publishers and editors, and probably the readership public, appear to be uninterested in the old labor beat. They believe unions maimed the newspaper industry as illustrated by the New York strikes of the 1960's, that unions are of little consequence and outdated as demonstrated by the decline in the percentage of the workforce in labor organizations, and the lack of high-class drama in the conflict and personalities of current negotiations.

This shift is illustrated by the simple press release announcement of the settlement of the agreement renewals between the General Electric Company and the international Union of Electrical Workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on June 30th, in stark contrast to the hoopla and attendant flock of reporters who once covered some of the most contentious negotiations 25 years ago.

Despite the significance of the current issues, the parties have learned that intense press attention complicates negotiations, and the press has learned that mature parties usually renew their agreements in processes that require privacy.

I recall how strongly Tony Lewis of The New York Times objected to my enunciating the view at a Nieman dinner that corrective bargaining operated under the Heisenberg principle that measuring or reporting, as the process took place, changed the process and distorted the negotiated results. He argued the public's right to know at each step, a sort of private sector open-meeting law. The results of negotiations are, of course, to be reported after ratification; to reveal the details as negotiations proceed imperils the integrity of the collective bargaining process.

There is, however, a new labor beat, and its contours may be largely identified by the Fact Finding Report of the Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, issued June 2 by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown, which I chair.

Workplace Changes

The American workplace and workforce have been changing very rapidly in a number of respects with significant impacts on worker-management and union-management relations. Among the most consequential of these developments are:

* The long-term decline of the rate of growth of productivity makes it difficult to enjoy rising standards of living and limits the feasible increases in wages and benefits that firms can pay and their international competitiveness at any given exchange rate of the dollar.

* An increased globalization of economic life, reflected in trade, capital and immigration, requires that firms face competitors whose workforce receives different levels of pay and work under different rules than in the U.S.

* A new industrial composition of employment demands workers with different skills and responsibilities and has contributed to the decline in the number of high paying jobs for manual workers.

* The occupational structure has shifted toward white-collar jobs that require considerable education.

* The increased role of women in the workforce challenges traditional work arrangements and raises demands for flexible working hours, job sharing arrangements, child care benefits and parental leave.

* Immigration links American wages and working conditions to those in source countries, particularly developing countries.

* The gap in earnings between higher paid and more educated or skilled workers and lower paid and less educated workers has increased greatly in the U.S. The stagnation of real earnings and increased inequality of earnings is bifurcating the U.S. labor market, with an upper tier of high wage skilled workers and an increasing "underclass" of low paid workers.

* Americans put in more hours of work than workers in other advanced countries except for Japan.

* The growing number of "contingent" and other non-standard workers poses the problem of how to balance employers' needs for flexibility with workers' needs for adequate income protection, job security and the application of public laws that these arrangements often circumvent.

* Government regulation of the workpace has expanded enormously, leaving less room for local parties to determine workplace rules that best meet the needs of their situations.

Worker Participation

Employee participation arrangements extend to one-fifth to one-third of the workforce; they take a variety of forms under collective bargaining and in nonunion workplaces, including: quality circles, employee participation teams, self-managed teams, safety and health committees, gain sharing plans, information sharing forums, employee ownership programs, joint training programs, etc.

These arrangements are often reshaped; some are short-lived while others tend to persist. Workers appear to desire to participate in decisions affecting their jobs. Some programs that are sustained over time and integrated with other organizational policies appear to improve economic performance and productivity. But truly "high performance" workplaces are probably limited to no more than 5 percent of workplaces.

The AFL-CIO has recently warmly endorsed such cooperative partnerships under collective bargaining, and substantial programs are effective under agreements at, among others, AT&T, Xerox, and the Ford Motor Company. Employee involvement plans in nonunion settings exist in Texas Instruments, Toyota (Kentucky) and Eastman Kodak, among others.

Numerous questions arise as to the comparability and relative performance of employee involvement plans in the two settings. Serious questions abound as to the legitimacy of some of these plans under existing labor-relations law. But a great deal is going on in workplace management methods, worker-management relations and union-management cooperation that deserves public understanding.

Labor-Management Relations

In the arena of conventional labor-management relations, while the principle of providing workers a free choice as to whether or not they wish to be represented by a union, uncoerced by management or unions, is established in law, some employers discharge workers for seeking representation and collective bargaining.

Employer unfair practices in representation processes, relative to the number of elections, have increased appreciably over the years. Further, unions are able to win collective bargaining agreements in only two-thirds of the establishments where they win representation elections.

American employers are far more hostile to union representation than employers in other Western countries. The reasons for this conduct need to be widely understood.

Changes In Workplace Law

One of the most notable changes in the American workplace over die past few decades has been the wide variety of legal rights and protections promised to individual employees by both federal and state law. These include minimum wages and maximum hours, a safe and healthy workplace, secure and accessible pension and health benefits once granted, adequate notice of plant closings and mass layoffs, unpaid family and medical leave and bans on wrongful dismissal.

These and all other employment terms and opportunities are to be enjoyed without discrimination on account of race, gender, religion, age or disability. Implementation and enforcement of legal rights against non-complying employers requires litigation in ordinary courts or proceedings before specialized agencies.

There has been a vast explosion of such litigation; employment law cases have increased 430 percent in the two decades, 1971-91. This litigation tends to be slow and expensive. Higher income employees tend to resort to such processes more readily, while low-paid workers, unless represented by an advocacy group, may be unable to achieve their rights.

The political process tends to provide little funding for enforcement, and there may be little compliance with some statutes in some communities. In the Los Angeles women's clothing industry, a Labor Department study showed that out of 69 workplaces all but two were in violation of federal or state employment laws.

This state of affairs has led to proposals for alternative dispute resolution procedures (ombudsperson, mediation, arbitration) in lieu of litigation. But the design of such procedures and providing them with a legitimate status is a difficult and complex undertaking.

By contrast, Western European countries tend to have labor courts with labor and management involvement that operate more rapidly and with less legalistic processes. Dispute resolution over public rights is likely to see significant developments in the period ahead.

The New Labor Beat

This new configuration of labor issues involves the performance of the economy, the internal governance of business and unions, workplace employee participation, the labor market and its outcomes in wages, benefits and types of jobs, government agencies and labor-management relations from the workplace to the board room (with union-selected directors), and the exploding field of employment law, regulation and litigation, health and safety and workers' compensation, health benefits, and the international field of labor standards and the activities of U.S. parties to deal with overseas competition and their concerns with outsourcing and human rights.

This is a vast new labor beat - much larger in scope than the old beat that persists in only a few cities such as Detroit - requiring new understanding by publishers, editors and reporters as well as new sources in many fields.

Reporting on developments as broad as the Commission's scope is lodged in the business pages of the press which have been expanded in lines and reporters. The question naturally arises whether business editors are well positioned to evaluate or calibrate labor-management, worker-management or union news.

The focus on developments of the American workplace and workforce in a global setting opens up a vast field for inter-related reports, touching the largest public. Labor organizations, collective bargaining and political action should not be ignored, but they are to be portrayed in a larger universe and not always in a setting of conflict.

Consider the global perspective: a new range of activities need not be cynically portrayed as "protectionism" or only increased prices for American consumers. The Levi Straus company action to specify standards for outsourcing - on prison or child labor products - was a signal development. European community and International Labor Office actions in these areas should not be ignored.

There are many managements and labor and management parties to collective bargaining that would welcome a scrutiny of their workplaces and employee participation plans. All of us need to understand why they were instituted, how they work, how performance is measured, what changes them or eliminates them, and what are their differences in union and non-union settings. A variety of academic research centers would provide a measure of support and a form of dispassion.

A challenge needs to be put to the Industrial Relations Research Association (IRRA), which brings together nationally, and in 40 chapters around the country, members from business, labor organizations, state and federal government agencies and academia. What, if anything, has it done to encourage responsible reporting and interaction with print and media reporters? The new labor beat needs to be better understood among the first-line gatekeepers for access to press pages and air time.

The American workplace has changed dramatically since labor reporting emerged as a distinct beat. As women have sought outside employment, a much higher percentage of the population is in the labor market. The political process has assured individual workers (not through their labor organizations) a vast array of benefits and new legal rights and protections. The country requires and expects a cooperative workplace essential to quality, productivity and competitiveness. The workplace is the centerpiece of the performance of American society.

In a recent New York Times Magazine symposium Michael Kinsley said, "I suppose everybody in the media wants three things. You want it to be true; you want it to be interesting; you want it to be important. " There is a lot of all three in the new labor beat.

New Challenge:

Mexican Labor

The traditional labor beat as we knew it in the 50's, the |60's and the |70's is gone. Gone are the stories on unions such as the Teamsters, the United Mine Workers and the United Farm Workers. As we move into the Information Age, it's been replaced by issue stories that don't easily fit the old perimeters of the labor beat, such as the carpal tunnel syndrome, the glass ceiling, sexual harassment, and child care.

But some of the old labor challenges still exist. For example, organizing the unorganized. Today that issue plays itself out on a larger stage through the globalization of labor. For those of us reporting for U.S. audiences, we're now examining one of the tightest integrations of two labor markets in the world. And the integration of the U.S. and Mexican labor markets is likely to increase as the North American Free Trade Agreement propels the commercial integration forward.

John T. Dunlop has worked for every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dunlop's favorite: Harry S Truman because he surprised the world with his decisiveness and because he accomplished a lot. Dr. Dunlop has accomplished a great deal, too, since he started at Harvard in 1938 in a teaching fellow position. Now Lamont University Professor, Emeritus, he was Chairman of the Department of Economics 1961-66 and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences 1969-73. As a government adviser he has chaired innumerable committee. As an author he has written extensively, often on labor-management relations.
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Title Annotation:Reviving the Labor Beat
Author:Dunlop, John T.
Publication:Nieman Reports
Date:Sep 22, 1994
Words:2335
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