Academic journal article Human Resource Planning

Organizational Change in Union Settings: Labor-Management Partnerships: The Past and the Future

Academic journal article Human Resource Planning

Organizational Change in Union Settings: Labor-Management Partnerships: The Past and the Future

Article excerpt

In spite of this, there is a rich history of union-management cooperation. Companies and unions have developed pragmatic solutions to significant problems affecting the workplace when traditional power strategies such as strikes, picketing, boycotts, and exercise of management rights were ineffective (Schuster, 1984). Prior to the National Labor Relations Act, cooperation took the focus of voluntary recognition and arbitration of grievances. During World War II, labor and management worked together to expedite wartime production. In the 1950s and '60s, cooperative procedures to address employment dislocation stemming from automation were widespread in shipping, mining, and meatpacking. During the 1970s and early '80s, labor-management committees, gainsharing, and joint quality of work-life efforts were widespread.

Labor-management cooperation hit its high water mark in the period from 1985 to 1995. Intense competition, combined with a notable shifting of power from labor to management, brought about a recognition of the need for change and a series of widely studied innovative experiments, from employee involvement to work redesign to innovative compensation systems and union involvement in key management decisions through partnerships. Widely publicized examples of cooperation occurred at Saturn, Nummi, Levi-Strauss, and Harley-Davidson.

In spite of such instances of cooperation, bystander or adversarial relationships between unions and management have been the norm. Bystander union-management relations are those in which the management directs the business and the union is free to criticize those decisions it does not like. In bystander unionism, the union accepts no responsibility for the success of the enterprise. Management is content not to offer any. Interaction between the parties centers on contract administration. Adversarial relations are characterized by open confrontation as to the union's right to represent the workforce and management's right to operate the business. The union openly (and behind the scenes) opposes managerial actions such as employee involvement. Management challenges union rights and responsibilities to represent the workforce. Personal relationships tend to be hostile.

In contrast, partnership relationships encourage worker and union direct action to improve the health of the business. Partnerships can exist at the strategic (corporate), site (tactical), or work site (small group) levels. Partnerships permit participation in a wide variety of operational decisions. Some partnerships go beyond this to strategic issues such as business goals, mission and values, markets, customer requirements, capital allocation and budgeting, purchasing and sourcing, human resource planning, and employee selection. Partnerships frequently address the issue of employment security.

The labor-management partnerships of the 1980s and '90s were seen as highly innovative, progressive steps in the development of labor-management relations. Labor and management sought to work together to involve both employees and the union with management to improve the health of the company in order to preserve jobs, enhance earnings, and improve safety and the quality of work life. Labor-management partnerships were seen as a mechanism for engaging the workforce to improve quality and productivity and as an effective tool for employers with strong unions to secure contractual and work rule changes that would not be obtainable in traditional negotiations. Partnerships at Levi-Strauss (see Appendix on page 51), Xerox, Saturn, Reynolds Metals, and Harley-Davidson made strong statements about the future of labor-management relations.

Most of these well-regarded partnerships are either gone or substantially modified. Saturn's (UAW) great experiment had difficulty surviving internal union politics and severe competition. The loss of its great inspirational leader, UAW Vice President Donald Ephlin, made the decline inevitable. …

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