A Team Approach in Labor Relations

By Neal Peirce Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 2, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Team Approach in Labor Relations


Neal Peirce Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Labor Day and powerful words, penned eight decades ago by Joe Hill, songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, seem forever bound: "Workers of the world unite. Rise in your splendid might. Take the wealth you are making. It belongs to you by right."

But this Labor Day, there's a less militant way to define the interests of working men and women. The new definition assumes fair pay, decent working conditions. Yet it goes a critical step further: to workers' rights to be well trained, consulted, treated as respected members of a team.

Progressive private firms have been moving this way trying to tap workers' talents since the early '80s. Now a parallel effort is under way in public employee unions - the area where the U.S. labor movement cont inues to grow. Why change? The public is demanding higher levels of service but voting down higher budgets and added taxes. Government is pressured to do more with less. It needs to reinvent itself. But without productive, motivated employees, it will fail. Last winter, a 14-person task force on labor-management relations in state and local government, appointed by Labor Secretary Robert Reich, produced a report - "Working Together for Public Service." It's becoming a bible for the new movement. The task force was tilted to friends of organized labor, with practically no opponents of public unionization. But the report shows how to build successful organizations in the '90s, whether or not a work force has collective bargaining. What's more, this is a government report that succeeds by telling good stories. At the heavily Hispanic Foshay School in South Central Los Angeles, surrounded by fences and drug deals, a new principal and the local teacher union chief formed a labor-management partnership in 1989. Teachers, for the first time, were given a big role in planning and curriculum. Parents, students and community leaders joined in a school leadership council. The results: test scores soared, yearly student suspensions went from 400 to 40, dropouts plummeted from 21 percent to 3.5 percent a year. Elected chair of Multnomah County (Portland), Ore., in 1993, Beverly Stein instituted an ambitious service improvement program. …

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