The Future of Labor-Management Relations

By Seegert, Scott; Kleiner, Brian H. | Industrial Management, May/June 1993 | Go to article overview

The Future of Labor-Management Relations


Seegert, Scott, Kleiner, Brian H., Industrial Management


We have all heard how out-dated and inefficient our production system is in the United States. The Japanese, as well as other countries, have moved far ahead of us in terms of both quality of product and productivity of the worker. We tend to blame a great deal of this on the fact that Japan has newer and thus technologically advanced tooling available to their production system. Perhaps an even greater reason for the obvious separation in production, however, is in the treatment of the worker and the mutual definition of what productivity is and should be.

The United States, being a capitalistic society, has always thought of productivity in terms of production rates and their corresponding effects on the profits of an organization. The worker is fitted to a task (often machine-oriented) and his job is made as simple and repetitive as possible in order to increase the efficiency in which the task is completed. What is suggested here, however, is that productivity involves more than just the needs of the organization. For a society as a whole to be productive, it must do more to satisfy the needs of the individual people in it. For this to occur, the relationship between management and labor (and labor unions) must head in new directions.

Irving Bluestone, in the book Work in America--the Decade Ahead, suggests collective bargaining between labor and unions and management to help fill certain needs and rights that our society should but does not provide adequately to its members. Included among these rights are health care, life insurance, retirement benefits and no loss in pay for holidays, vacations and absence due to illness. These are areas of present concern in labor-management negotiations and fall into the area of hard-line controversial issues as discussed by Bluestone. He cites two other general areas of concern, namely issues for joint cooperative programs between labor and management and worker participation in decision making.

HARD-LINE CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES

This constitutes the real emphasis of present day labor/union negotiations. Included in these issues are basic needs as far as pay, security and fringe benefits are concerned; and negotiations in this area are strongly adversarial in nature. If our ultimate goal is, as it should be, societal productivity rather than simply higher profits for an organization, then job security must involve not only keeping the present workforce employed but also employing those who are out of work. For a society to be productive and efficient as a whole, each member of that society must be a contributor. Our country has a history of high unemployment, and not much is being done by the legislative body to alter the situation. As was mentioned earlier, collective bargaining has been filling the void created by society's lack of action to provide for basic needs and rights, such as the right to earn a living. This is the problem that must be addressed in hard-line negotiations in the future.

Steps have already been made in the reduction of nationwide unemployment through mandatory retirement ages (with compensation) and reduced length of work weeks, which provides more jobs to obtain a specific level of production.

A push is currently in effect to reduce the standard work week from five to four days. Management's fear is that a four day work week will underutilized its capital investment in production equipment. By staggering days off, however, a plant may operate its normal forty hour week and also provide more jobs to the unemployed. If workers' income is not to decrease while working fewer hours, however, total wages will increase as a result of the increased number of employees while production should remain constant. It should be suspected, on the other hand, that individual hourly productivity will increase due to the shorter work week, absenteeism will decrease and more employed consumers in the market will create a higher demand.

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