Labour-Management Partnerships: U.S. Evidence and Implications for Ireland

Article excerpt

Introduction

For many years after publication of The Transformation of American Industrial Relations (Kochan, Katz & McKersie 1986), we observed only scant evidence that the transformation process, especially at the strategic level, was actually taking place. Finally, now, in the mid-1990s,a wide range of activities under the banner of labourmanagement, strategic partnerships can be seen, and they possess the potential to bring forth a new paradigm in employment relationships. Many examples in both the manufacturing and public sectors can be found in the United States, Britain, and Ireland, as well as other European countries.

Before getting too far into the subject, it is useful to attempt to define the scope of what is meant by a strategic partnership. A recent position paper prepared by a task force between the Communications, Energy and Paper (CEP) Union and Bell Canada defines the elements of a strategic partnership as follows:

[Union-management partnerships need to] involve, through the corporate steering committee and other exchanges of information, appropriate union executives in planning, strategy, training, and policy formulation in areas such as quality, human resources planning, new technology, major product and market changes, and strategic alliances with other telecommunications companies. These partnerships take place, for the most part, directly between labour and management - government as a player is generally not involved. Another key distinction is that these partnerships are at the corporate level where key business decisions are made that affect the viability of the enterprise. This is in line with the general decentralisation of collective bargaining that has occurred in Western countries from industry level down to enterprise level.

In the face of a natural reluctance by managers to share power, as well as a hesitancy on the part of many union leaders to move away from the traditional system wherein "management acts and the union reacts", we need to understand what has changed in the environment that is driving this important development. In addition, we need to understand the nature of the many, many dilemmas that the parties participating in these new arrangements are experiencing. The purpose of this paper is to explore these developments and challenges, using evidence from a number of partnerships, to demonstrate that this development is both robust and likely to expand.

The Explanation for the Emergence of Partnerships

One of the most prominent examples of labour-management partnerships in the United States is what has emerged in the integrated sector of the steel industry. Lynn Williams, former president of the United Steelworkers of America, explained recently (in January 1996), in an address to the Trade Union Programme at Harvard University, why he advocated a new strategy and bargained a series of contracts in 1993 with the major steel companies that embodied a comprehensive set of innovations. Basically, his premise was that with employment dropping precipitously and likely to drop even further as companies restructured, and as the character of the industry moved away from the dominance of large integrated operations and increasingly populated by mini-mills (largely non-union), the United Steelworkers Union and its members were going to lose out if ways were not found to participate at the strategic level as key business plans were formulated. Williams also recognised that the integrated sector needed to be more productive, and that such organisational innovations as teams, problem-solving groups, delegation of responsibility downward in the organization, and contingency compensation had to be implemented in the integrated sector (intensely organised by the United Steelworkers union). Otherwise, the union was not going to survive. The phrase that Williams likes to use is: "Managerial decisions are too important to be left just to executives". …