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Worker participation and American unions: threat or opportunity?

In reviewing the burgeoning literature on quality of worklife (QWL) issues and activities, one is hard-pressed to locate many publications that critically examine what some have come to see as "the new industrial relations" and that trace otu the broader implications of prevailing practices with regard to worker participation. Much of what has been written to date is disappointingly simplistic and all too reminiscent of the sophistry that marked the human relations era of a few decades ago. Too many books and articles are "sales oriented," with individual authors seeming to view for recognition as the purveyor of wisdom and truth and often doing so with extravagant reports of various gains achieved by using this or that set of "best practices." Others, in their rush to judgment, offer only single-time snapshots of program experiences that portray early "successes" but stop short of capturing subsequent setbacks or "failures." While this may seem too harsh a description of the extant QWL literature, in reviewing it one cannot help but sympathize with managers and union officials who understandably seek (and assuredly deserbe) information in which they can have confidence and upon which they might base decisions that may well affect profoundly the institutions they lead.

Particularly conspicuous by their absence from this literature are studies of how various kinds of worker participation schemes affect labor unions, their members, and the relations of both with employers. This void may reflect, in part at least, the fact that the social/behavioral scientists who helped give rise to the QWL movement have historically been, at best, not interested in unions, an attitude that has been easily reciprocated by labor leaders. It is only recently that these QWL advocates have come to recognize unions as more than an "externality" in their industrial relations calculus.

To be sure, we are well acquainted by now with the publicly expressed views of some of the Nation's key labor leaders, especially those who fall at the more extreme points of the pro-con QWL continuum, and we have had confirmed once more that the labor movement in the United States, unlike many of its counterparts abroad, does not speak with a single voice on all matters of common concern. But what is still obscure, even to otherwise astute observers, is how QWL and participation programs have in fact affected unions thus far and what these early experiences imply for their future and the future of labor-management relations in this country. These are vital questions and they can be answered not by impressions or by vacuous philosophical debates or by bits and pieces of data incidentally produced during the course of program evaluations focusing largely on productivity improvement. What is required is the kind of systematic empirical research and thoughtful exposition of issues that readers are apt to find in Worker Participation and American Unions by Kochan, Katz, and Mower.

The authors of this volume are, in turn, two faculty members and a research associate in the Industrial Relations Section of MIT's Sloan School of Management. The research they report grows out of a project initiated by the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department and, according to a foreword by its president, Howard D. Samuel, was intended "to assess the impact on trade unions and collective bargaining of worker participation or quality of worklife programs." While the authors describe as their primary audience "representatives of the labor movement who need to come to grips with the role of worker participation processes," they quite correctly acknowledge settings: Xerox and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, GM's Packard Electronic division and the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Technical, Salaried and Machine Workers, the Uniform Piston Co. (a fictitious name) and its unnamed local union, a Canadian grocery chain and the union representing its workers (both unnamed), and the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, whose employees are represented by the Newspaper Guild. These cases are presented and analyzed in some detail, and each tells an interesting tale in itself. They are tales of joint committees, participation teams, autonomous work groups, and, yes, quality circles. They are also stories of successes and failures, and in some respects mixtures of the two. One would hope that they are read with particular care by those who champion "one best way" and who see participation processes in mechanistic terms, for experience proves otherwise. This obviously is a field of human endeavor that cannot be negotiated with the aid of anything resembling an American Automobile Association triptik. And, indeed, as the authors conclude, "there is not a magical single line of steady positive results of improvements that automatically flow from a worker participation process." Each case is sui generis, its experiences determined to a great extent by the character of and relations among the people involved, as well as the distinctive internal and external conditions that underlie decisions to "go the participation way." In all instances, however, the line separating QWL/participation programs, or "experiments" if you wish, from the ongoing process of collective bargaining is faint if perceptible at all.

The authors shift their focus from happenings in single plants and offices to the broader arena of national labor-management relations. Chosen for examination here are the initiatives of the Steelworkers and the companies that are party to the Basic Steel Agreement, and the Automobile Workers joint efforts with both General Motors and the Ford Motor Co. In chronicling the evolution of the Labor-Management Participation Team program in the steel industry, the authors discuss the several impediments encountered in the diffusion of this process that inevitably threaten its continuity, residing both within each party and in the nature of the relationship between them. In the face of these barriers, as well as the economic travail confronting the industry, it is impressive that four of the six LMPT programs examined were still operative at the time of the study. As to long-term survivability, however, it can only be concluded that the jury is still out.

If any collective bargaining parties have occupied center stage in the QWL drama now being played out in the United states, they are the United Automobile Workers, General Motors, and the Ford Motor Co. Encouraged by the celebrated Lordstown strike and begun with a 1973 letter of understanding between GM and the UAW, an impressive number and variety of QWL programs ("Employee Involvement" at Ford) have been launched in the auto industry. Obviously these multiplant programs are too numerous and too varied for the authors to have attempted more than a brief encapsulation of them. But what they have described serves well to illustrate the kinds of innovations that have been explored and adopted as well as the accomplishments and pitfalls of these joint efforts. Unlike the widely touted Volvo/Kalmar plant, assembly lines, seen by many as the cruse of the autoworker, have not been discarded in favor of entirely new production methods. However, through worker participation, changes in "the rules of the game" have led to a greater measure of flexibility that has, in instances at least, produced demonstrable benefits for both management and labor. With the economic crisis faced by this industry, as well as steel, likely to continue, it now remains to be seen how far, how fast, and in what directions worker participation will proceed during the second decade of these joint efforts.

It is in the book's fourth chapter that narrative comes to be joined with empirical data. Here the authors present and analyze the result of surveys they conducted of rank-and-file file workers' attitudes toward participation programs and how these affect their jobs and their local unions. Survey data were collected from more than 900 members of five national unions, roughly equal proportions of whom were participants and nonparticipants in various kinds of QWL projects. If one feels some discomfort about the adequacy of sampling and survey procedures, it is understandable. As the authors acknowledge, these respondent groups are truly "samples of convenience" and the data they contribute, by questionnaires completed onsite and via mail, permit few confident conclusions and only limited generalization. Still, at the very least what is offered is a good bit of information as to how these particular workers and union members regard these particular participation schemes. And in a research area where data of this kind and on this scale are rare, this is no small contribution.

And what do union members think? Briefly: (1) they, participants more than nonparticipants, want their say in QWL issues but by no means express a diminished interest in influencing traditional bread-and-butter issues; (2) they report themselves as having less influence than they prefer over both QWL and non-QWL issues regardless of whether they are involved in participation programs; (3) they offer some evidence, although not compelling, that QWL processes tend to improve the character of the jobs they perform; (4) they give their unions higher marks on their handling of bread-and-butter than QWL issues; and (5) they, nonparticipants in this case, differ markedly from organization to organization in their desire to become involved in participation processes. By way of general observation, the authors conclude that "effective performance on QWL issues will not serve as an effective substitute for an inability to deliver economic benefits, job security, and protection from any arbitrary actions on the part of management." Thus, the rank-and-file support essential to initiate and sustain QWL and participation programs requires, in the authors' view, that these be integrated into the overall collective bargaining framework.

Moving onward and upward, the authors then present additional attitudinal data derived from indepth interviews of 30 local union officials and QWL activists (for example, "facilitators") and questionnaire responses from another 110 officials in five auto plants. This sample is even more difficult to characterize, and the discussion of survey results represents an artistic blending of both qualitative (interview) and quantitative (questionnaire) data. We are assured, however, that "the two data sources reveal very similar views."

Consistent with other studies and popular reports, local officials claim that participation processes played a major role in reducing both grievance and absentee rates, and also helped improve productivity and product quality. Judgments about program impacts on local unions were, however, mixed, with no clear evidence that they enhanced either member identification or satisfaction with their unions. And notwithstanding other reports to the contrary, they dispute that support for participation programs had any bearing on union election outcomes. Finally, these officials differ widely in their views of the future of participation programs, some seeing them as limited, albeit useful, supplements to collective bargaining and others envisioning them as leading to still broader assumptions of management responsibility and possibly as a route to union engagement in nonwork and community interests. But in any event, they voice strong support for participation processes and the role of unions in jointly managing them.

In next presenting "Views from the Top of the Labor Movement," the authors continue the logical progression of the book "to review the contemporary thinking of key national labor movement leaders." Here the data are purely qualitative, consisting of information and presumably impressions extracted from interviews, speeches, and various union documents. Although the AFL-CIO has taken no official stance on QWL programs, the position of its secretary-treasurer, Thomas Donahue, is characterized as one of "cautious skepticism." He is described as accepting QWL activities as supplements to adversarial bargaining but opposed to their being cast as a philosophical mvoement. And, in his view, the major roadblock to greater labor-management cooperation is the resistance to organized labor manifested by champions of a "union free environment."

The authors identify four quite distinct positions regarding worker participation processes among national unions. Representing "general opposition" on one extreme is the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), whose president, William W. Winpisinger, is cast as the "Harshest contemporary critic" of QWL programs. (In considering this view from the top, it might have been noted that the IAM is reportedly engaged quite actively in joint QWL efforts at the local level, a situation that speaks clearly of the autonomy exercised by most local unions in the United States.) Located at the opposite end is the Communication Workers of American (CWA), whose president, Glenn E. Watts, is said to be the only one of his rank among major unions to advocate worker participation processes as "an integral part of the union's long-run strategy. "Yet, despite the differences between these two leaders, they are in firm agreement that labor-management cooperation requires a much greater acceptance by employers of the legitimacy of unions and the cessation of "antiunion warfare."

Positioned between the "extremes" represented by the IAM and the CWA are the decentralized policies of unions such as the Electrical Workers, the Allied Industrial Workers, and the Food and Commercial Workers on the one hand and the Auto Workers and Steelworkers on the other. The authors describe the first of these, "decentralized neutrality," as the principal national union strategy now prevailing. Here, top officials neither publicly espouse support for worker participation nor lend staff to encouraging and assisting local efforts. Rather, each local makes its own determination in the light of its particular circumstances and aims. By contrast, both the UAW and USA encourage and assist local initiatives, by high level and staff support, but have presidents who themselves offer no public endorsement.

In summarizing these views of top officials, the authors once again stress the importance of gaining employer acceptance of unions as a condition essential for the sustenance and diffusion of QWL and participation programs. But beyond this basic point of agreement, and even in the face of greater employer acceptance, a consensus has yet to emerge as to whether unions should adopt a proactive or reactive position, how far leaders should go in elevating QWL issues on union agendas, and how vigorously they should promote QWL involvement. Perhaps the most basic issue, however, is "whether worker participation can enhance the effectiveness of their representationa role at the workplace and eventually be used as a means of enhancing industrial democracy within American society."

In their concluding chapter, the authors derive as "the central implication" of their study the belief "that for worker participation processes to survive . . . each party must see these processes as contributing to their separate economic and organizational interests." During a time when mutuality of interests is being so prominently discussed, it is notable that some recognition is given to the diffrences whose understanding and acceptance is key to appreciating the full meaning of collective bargaining and labor-management relations. And while it is undeniably true that one does not live by bread alone, can it be any less equivocal that "psychological rewards alone do not appear to be sufficient to maintain the commitment of management, the union and its leaders, or rank-and-file workers" in participation programs? This issue, raised by the authors, might well be pondered by those with QWL program responsibility who seem to be getting by through doling out various kinds of "psychic" and symbolic rewards in lieu of more tangible benefits.

In deriving in lieu of more tangible benefits.

In deriving the implications of their study, the authors argue that union leaders must "link [participation] processes to the union's broader strategies for improving the effectiveness of its bargaining relationship" and cite three prerequisites for labor's support: (1) employer acceptance of union legitimacy; (2) a sustained management commitment to supporting participation processes; and (3) and economically viable enterprise. But even with these requirements met they unhesitatingly conclude that "a total separation of worker participation from collective bargaining is neither possible nor desirable." The task of harmonizing the two obviously poses no small challenge to the leadership of the labor movement. And as yet there is no clear answer to whether QWL will turn out to be "a limited supplement to collective bargaining or an evolving step toward an American brand of shop floor democracy that is an integral part of the collective bargaining process."

Going still further in their discussion, the authors suggest that collective bargaining may be shifting away from a "job control" concept of unionism and toward one marked by "a more flexible and varied form of work organization." However, the extent to which such a shift actually occurs depends on the parties substantially redefining their roles and their preparedness to make tradeoffs that inevitably involve a measure of risk for both. What could ensue with greater worker participation, in the authors' view, is "a more proactive form of labor-management relations based around greater joint research and analysis, planning and consultation" and in time a breeching, or at least a repositioning, of the legally (by the National Labor Relations Act) defined boundary between labor and management. Although "works councils" are also envisioned as a possibility, they as well as other forms of "codetermination," including board representation, are given scant attention. Well down the road, as the more or less ultimate extrapolation, lies the creation of "the microfoundation for a new industrial and human resource development policy," a matter clearly deserving of inclusion in the arena of public policy debate.

Appended in a postscript are some comments by the presidents of the CWA and IAM. Watts cautions against "any blurring of the distinction between collective bargaining and QWL" and also injects a new thought by conceding the importance of implementing QWL values and processes within his own union. Winpisinger agrees that "in theory, QWL is a concept which any responsible union representative would support," cites some ways in which "QWL programs have the potential for being disruptive and unfair," and underscores the imperative for "both management and government to recognize the need for unions in a just society."

Worker Participation and American Unions is not without its flaws and limitations, methodologically and interpretively. In addition to offering a wider range of systematically gathered empirical data, especially on the specific individual and institutional outcomes of QWL programs and worker participation, one might have hoped for a more extensive discussion of the changing face of industrial relations. Yet, a more inclusive book, to the extent it took the form of an academic tome, would have been likely to escape the attention of much of the readership for which this short volume was intended. But make no mistake, this is a well written and provocative work, one that is a refreshing departure from the often tedious rhetoric that clutters the mainstream of the QWL literature. In its relatively few pages, the authors distill much of the essence of the ongoing QWL debate into a logically developed and easily digestible discussion of some basic issues whose resolution is destined to have an enormous impact on the future course of this country's labor unions and industrial relations system. It would be a mistake for any participant in or serious observer of our rapidly changing industrial relations scene not to read and reflect on its message.
COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Author:Shore, Richard P.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1985
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