Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

The Dunlop Commission's Omissions on American Labor Market Policy

Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

The Dunlop Commission's Omissions on American Labor Market Policy

Article excerpt


Where should public policy be going with regard to labor market and labor relations issues? The Clinton administration put this question before a presidential task force popularly known as the "Dunlop Commission" after its chair, John T. Dunlop. Specifically, the administration asked the commission to examine (i) what might be done to enhance workplace productivity through labor-management cooperation and worker participation, (ii) what changes in the law could improve productivity, cooperation, and reduce conflict and delay, and (iii) what could be done to remove workplace problems from the legal system and promote private resolution.

A. Background

In 1945, President Truman held a Labor-Management Conference to deal with the then-pressing issue of strikes and the adaptation of the economy to the rapid expansion of collective bargaining. Labor (union) and management representatives to the conference agreed on little other than that using arbitration to settle grievances was a good thing. Nonetheless, the conference did put the issues of the day on the table and clarified the alternatives. Participants left knowing where they disagreed, even if unable to resolve the differences. Ultimately, the conference set the pattern for postwar labor relations.

Many economic changes occurred over the next five decades, notably the decline in collective bargaining, which was the focus of the 1945 conference. Shortly after taking office, President Clinton created a "Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations." The words, "worker-management" rather than "labor-management" acknowledged the decline in the union sector.

Despite the significant title change, the commission remained focused on collective bargaining. The commission implicitly assumed that negotiations provide a significant way to solve national economic problems in the labor market and that the problems formerly besetting collective bargaining were rooted in law rather than economic changes. Additionally, the commission apparently also assumed that meaningful consensus would be possible although chair Dunlop came to view the current climate as comparable to the disputatious 1940s (Daily Labor Report, May 11, 1995, pp. A10-A11)


The Dunlop Commission's composition guaranteed the broad outline of its conclusions. Long before being appointed to the commission, the academics and government officials who dominated its membership had expressed three views on what was needed in public policy:(1) (i) cooperative union-management relations should be encouraged and excess legalism should be avoided, (ii) management was not sufficiently constrained by the legal system in resisting unionization, and (iii) the representation election process should be speedier and - if the union won - should definitely result in a (cooperative) bargaining relationship.

A. Consensus Strategy

Once appointed, the commission strove for a consensus report acceptable to both union and employer representatives. The strategy resulted in a final report that passed with only one (union) dissent (over the issue of easing legal restrictions on employee participation committees). This near-unanimity undoubtedly required considerable internal effort but had its price.

By the time the commission released its final report, the November 1994 political upheaval giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress overwhelmed whatever impact the report might have had. The consensus strategy had produced proposals that the Congress elected with the Clinton administration in 1992 might have favored, but the new Congress in 1995 showed a mild interest in only one of the commission's recommendations regarding employee participation committees. However, that interest resulted in proposed legislation that commission members generally rejected. Moreover, the consensus strategy produced a report that critics on the left characterized as minimalist and critics on the right saw as too pro-union. …

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