Magazine article Personnel

Managing Tomorrow's Unionized Workers

Magazine article Personnel

Managing Tomorrow's Unionized Workers

Article excerpt

Managing Tomorrow's Unionized Workers

If the United States is to remain competitive in world markets, the American workforce must operate at maximum productivity. To achieve this, the "workplace of the future" will require greater emphasis on such key human resources factors as participative management, training programs, and teamwork.

To properly manage the workforce of the future, HR managers must appreciate not only the nature of the changes necessary to maximize productivity but also the degree of support that currently exists for these changes. These issues are even more complex in the unionized sector of the manufacturing industry because of the current confused state of unionization in the United States.

Unionized employees have recently discovered that they can negatively influence an organization without taking such extreme measures as calling strikes. For example, employees at a unionized General Motors plant essentially caused the plant to run "backwards." Workers at this plant did only the minimum amount of work expected of them, and after 14 months, productivity at the plant had fallen nearly 20%. Developing a work environment where such problems can be avoided and where productivity can be maximized seems a worthwhile goal for all concerned--including HR managers.

Ignoring such important human resources factors as training, participative management, stripped-down middle management, and decision making by those close to the production process has already caused problems for such major manufacturers as General Motors. In its zeal to regain competitive advantage, management at GM has overemphasized computer-integrated manufacturing at the expense of the other components of the total work environment. Many executives at General Motors were surprised when the outdated New United Motor Manufacturing plant in Fremont, California, a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corporation and GM that operates under the Toyota management style, had a higher productivity rate than most of GM's newer plants. David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, probably summed up the situation best when he stated that the success of this obsolete plant "is making them [General Motors] rethink their whole philosophy about how to be competitive."

According to billionaire entrepreneur H. Ross Perot, "No matter how much General Motors invests in new plants and sophisticated technology, it will never be truly competitive until it starts making better use of its greatest resource: its people. That means changing the adversary relationship between labor and management, treating workers with respect, listening to their ideas, and getting them involved in solving problems."

A Closer Look at the Problem In early 1988, as part of a continuing research effort, the authors sent attitudinal questionnaires to a random sample of 1,000 individuals who were affiliated with unionized manufacturing operations in union-dominated areas of the United States. The questionnaire was developed to assess the attitudes of those individuals who will probably be directly involved with productivity-enhancing changes in the work environment. Employees who are currently affiliated with unionized plants should be acutely aware of the impact of change on their work environments. The firms represented in this survey have recently undergone or are currently undergoing various states of modernization.

Since affiliates of the unionized manufacturing sector primarily include industrial relations managers, union representatives, seniority workers, and recently hired workers, these groups' opinions largely reflect the current attitudes in these union-dominated firms. The surveyors assumed that dividing the rank and file into two categories would provide some insight into the attitudes of both younger workers and workers with seniority, who are more inclined to maintain the traditional adversarial union/management relationship. …

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