Innovation in Isolation: Labor-Management Partnerships in the United States

By Wever, Kirsten S.; Batt, Rosemary et al. | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, June 1996 | Go to article overview
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Innovation in Isolation: Labor-Management Partnerships in the United States

Wever, Kirsten S., Batt, Rosemary, Rubinstein, Saul, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


In the United States, as in other advanced industrial countries, worker participation in management has taken on increasing importance as Fordism/Taylorism continue to be replaced by new ways of organizing work and production (Campbell, 1989; Visser, 1994). These changes have placed pressures on employers and unions to change how they deal with employees/members and with each other. These pressures in turn have led to the development of a variety of impressive experiments with innovative new ways of involving workers and their representatives in decision making processes traditionally viewed as falling within the domain of managerial prerogative (Applebaum and Batt, 1994; Kochan et al., 1986). Indeed, even employers in Germany-with its extensive mechanisms for worker representation and labor-management cooperation--have cited American cases as representing international 'best practice' in the area of worker participation in management decision making (Gesamtmetall, 1989).

This paper presents two of the most impressive labor-management partnerships in the United States: between General Motors (G.M.) and the United Autoworkers union (U. A.W.) at Saturn, and between BellSouth and the Communication Workers union (C.W.A.). However, certain problems continue to confront the parties to employment relations in the U.S. with regard to such innovations. Often the parties involved in these experiments remain ambivalent about them, and the innovations remain isolated. As we will argue with reference to the two cases, these problems reflect the employment relations context in the U.S.


In the U.S. only about 12% of private sector workers and 15% of the workforce as a whole are unionized. Union coverage reflects these percentages, since under the 'exclusive representation' system mandated by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (N.L.R.A., as amended) workplaces are either entirely unionized or entirely nonunion. There is no 'second channel' of worker representation through nationally mandated works councils independent of the unions.

Most collective bargaining agreements in the U.S. address issues of work organization in the sense that most collective bargaining contracts involve the detailed definition of jobs and the demarcation of jurisdictions, as well as a strict seniority system that governs wages, transfers and lay-offs (Katz, 1985). This 'job control' system is entrenched in unionized manufacturing industries and some service sectors organizations, and constrains internal labor market flexibility. Because of the few legal restrictions on hiring and firing workers and the lack of wage solidarity within and across industries, firms are encouraged to obtain workers through the external labor market rather than investing in their incumbent work forces. Since work organization is substantially shaped by job definitions, 'job control is directly challenged by efforts to change the organization of work and skills (Frehkel etal., 1995).

Recent research suggests that about 35% of companies with more than 50 employees have introduced some aspects of 'high performance work systems' (Osterman, 1994), which organize work and production to support a high labor-value-added, high quality and high productivity competitive strategy (see also Walton, 1985). Evidence suggests that more of the sorts of innovations associated with significant increases in productivity are to be found in unionized than in nonunion settings (Eaton and Voos, 1992; Kelly and Harrison, 1992). Nevertheless, research has also found that in most cases companies have adopted one or a few aspects of high performance work systems without effecting a substantial transformation in the labor-management relationship (Applebaum and Batt, 1994).

Companies have introduced many different kinds of employee involvement programs including quality circles, provisions for due process to handle employee grievances, quality of worklife programs, and so on.

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