International Experiences with Technological Change

By Deutsch, Steven | Monthly Labor Review, March 1986 | Go to article overview
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International Experiences with Technological Change

Deutsch, Steven, Monthly Labor Review

International experiences with technological change

Most industrial nations are concerned with the impact of microelectronics and technological change on the work force. In many instances, reports from national commissions, such as the Canadian Task Force on Microelectronics and Employment and the Swedish Computer Commission, have attempted to identify and address problems that can arise when new technology is introduced. These reports often lead to legislative solutions to the problems of new technology that are consistent with the larger role played by government in many countries in shaping the conditions at the workplace and the role of labor and management.

In countries with collective bargaining systems similar to the United States, there is evidence of growing reliance on some governmental mechanisms. For example, the Canadian Task Force on Microelectronics and Employment suggested the establishment of mandatory labor-management technology committees in all places of employment with more than 50 emloyees. These committees would "deal with issues such as training, retraining, redundancy, worksharing, productivity improvements, and other matters related to technological change at the workplace.'1 A review of the pattern in most industrial nations reveals varying blends of governmental legislation and collectively bargained labor-management agreements.2

This reflects not only the tendency to involve government in labor-management relations, but also the relative size of the unionized labor force and the power of labor political parties. The percentage of the labor force which is unionized varies considerably among industrialized nations: United States, 22 percent; France, 28 percent; Japan, 33 percent; Germany, 42 percent; United Kingdom, 55 percent; Australia, 56 percent; Belgium, 79 percent; and Sweden, 83 percent.3 Most of these nations have a labor party which tends to wed collective bargaining strategies to political and legislative agendas. For example, the Swedish Labor Federation, through the Social Democratic Party, has been successful in gaining governmental approval for legislative changes concerning job security, labor market policies (including advance notification and government subsidies to assure full employment), worker representation on corporate boards, joint consultation between management and labor (co-determination), empowering workers to improve work environments, and the establishment of wage earner funds to give workers gradual ownership and economic influence in the enterprise.4

There are many variations in the relative importance of collective bargaining versus legislative approaches, but even in England, Canada, or Australia, where there are strong traditions of deferral to bargaining, in recent years, the government has been active on issues of worker participation and technology.5

Adversarial relations

England. Concern with technology was already well developed in England in the 1970's, prior to the resurgence of interest in the United States. Primarily, union-initiated proposed technology agreements with employers dealt with the basic questions of advance notification, job security, training and retraining, worker involvement in technological change, and design and implementation. However, "while unions in Britain have generally recognized the need to extend the scope of collective bargaining in order to influence the introduction of new technology, few have succeeded in achieving this end.'6 The reason for this lies largely in the tension over the short-term strategy of worker involvement in planning. In 1982, a group at the University of Aston examined a large number of English technology agreements and collective bargaining contracts; they concluded that, "To date, it is the defensive/reaction strategy that has predominated.'7

Compounding the problem today are the troubled economic situation in Britain and the deterioration of labor relations in that country.

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