Collective Bargaining and Labor-Management Relations, 1988

By Ruben, George | Monthly Labor Review, January 1989 | Go to article overview

Collective Bargaining and Labor-Management Relations, 1988


Ruben, George, Monthly Labor Review


Some employers and unions continued to grapple with difficult problems: maintaining solvency and preserving jobs in the face of challenges from nonunion firms as well as foreign competitors George Ruben is a project director in the Division of Developments in Labor-Management Relations, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The flexibility and ingenuity of unions and management were again tested in 1988. The parties continued to struggle with two problems that have colored labor-management relations throughout the 1980's-preserving jobs and keeping companies economically viable. These problems, which appear likely to continue, although perhaps abated in some cases, stemmed largely from competition at home and abroad. American-made goods were challenged by products of industrialized and developing countries -products that were sometimes better made or less expensive, or both. Some foreign companies opened plants in the United States, while others entered into joint ventures with American companies, resulting in a blending of production methods and labor-management relations approaches that will apparently become increasingly significant in some industries.

Established firms in industries such as trucking, airlines, and telephone communications that, by their nature, are less vulnerable to foreign competition, faced competition from new firms that entered after the industries were deregulated. Often the established firms were unionized, while the new ones were not and benefited from lower labor costs. Some unions and companies, acknowledging their common destiny, cooperated in trying to overcome the nonunion competition by improving productivity and quality and lowering labor costs, while giving employees job assurances and a monetary stake in the success of the company. In some cases, where their members' financial sacrifices had helped companies compete and regain profitability, unions sought a share of the gains for those members.

Efforts to restrain labor costs are reflected in the size of wage adjustment under major collective bargaining agreements. Settlements covering 1,000 workers or more in private industry reached between 1982 and 1987 provided wage adjustments averaging between 1.6 and 3.8 percent annually over their life; during the first 9 months of 1988, the average was 2.4 percent. By contrast, between 1972 and 1981, the over-the-life average was between 5.1 and 7.9 percent annually.

Another indication of the state of labor-management relations is the decline in the number of major work stoppages (strikes and lockouts involving 1,000 workers or more). In most years between 1947 and 1979, there were typically between 200 and 400 major stoppages. The number dropped to 187 in 1980, and continued to decline (with one interruption) to a record low of 46 in 1987. Through November of 1988 there were 31 major stoppages, indicating that the year would probably end with a record low.

Other characteristics of labor-management relations in 1988 are less easily measured in statistical terms, but are evident in the following discussion of developments in individual industries and firms. Trucking

The year was momentous for the trucking industry, and more so for the Teamsters union, as labor and management negotiated a new master freight agreement that was widely opposed by union members, The Teamsters' difficulty in resolving the controversy over the settlement was exacerbated by a change in leadership following the death of president Jackie Presser and a Federal lawsuit alleging some of the union's leaders, including new president William J. McCarthy, permitted "Cosa Nostra figures to dominate and corrupt important . . . locals, joint councils, and benefit funds."

The Teamsters' settlement with Trucking Management Inc., the industry's lead bargaining association, drew strong criticism from union members, particularly the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a dissident group. …

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