Beyond Combative Labor Relations Some Companies Are Diluting Top-Down Management to Involve Workers in Decisionmaking
Mark Trumbull, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
LATE last year was crunch time at Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation. Its cavernous Trentwood Works - 60 roofed acres in Trentwood, Wash., built to fabricate aluminum for World War II aircraft - was in trouble.
The problem: a downturn in defense/aerospace business coupled with industry overcapacity in beverage-can sheet, which accounts for two-thirds of the plant's output. With Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) closing a plant in Indiana, and another rival slashing two-thirds of its work force at a Chicago-area unit, something had to change fast at Trentwood.
So instead of imposing a fix from the top, as in previous downturns, Kaiser managers decided to bring the unionized work force into the decisionmaking room. The move puts Kaiser among the growing ranks of American companies that want to replace combative labor-management relations with mutual trust and shared responsibility.
In seminars for all employees, managers described market conditions and the plant's strengths and weaknesses, handing out quiz sheets to make sure ideas stuck.
Then the United Steelworkers union and management formed a "survival committee" and agreed to work together to cut $50 million in annual expenses, half by layoffs of both union and salaried employees. By March of this year, the two sides had agreed on steps to meet the goals, including more-flexible job duties proposed by the United Steelworkers. The parties also agreed to continue the process of collaborative change. This marks a contrast with the old game, in which the union and top executives fought to divide up the economic pie.
This new game is about building trust and common goals so both sides can prosper. American industry can offset high labor costs by making every worker more productive and innovative. "This new, so-called high-performance format - it looks like it works," says Anthony Carnevale, chairman of the federal government's National Commission on Employment Policy.
The statement may not sound startling. But it implies that many managers need to scrap an "I'm the boss" style and maybe even the view that unions are a hindrance to company performance.
Mr. Carnevale, who is completing a study of 400 United States companies, says his research suggests that "if you have a union and you work successfully with them, you have a competitive advantage over a company that doesn't have a union."
"If the workers have a voice, ... it's an advantage," he explains.
With union membership at a low point - only 11 percent of the nonfarm private-sector work force versus 35 percent in the 1950s - many business leaders would prefer that "voice" to come without unionization.
The Clinton administration formed the Commission on the Future of Worker Management Relations, also known as the Dunlop Commission, in part to sort out this issue. Current labor law prohibits "company unions" created by management to block genuine trade unions. Many observers say the law should be loosened to allow for new forms of labor-management cooperation. But others say a retreat from real trade unions will leave workers with no strong voice.
The AFL-CIO this year embraced the concept of "full and equal labor-management partnerships," but rejected initiatives led by management alone.
Whatever form worker empowerment takes, it appears to be a trend that will continue. As nations with lower labor costs industrialize, many experts say American manufacturers can only succeed by raising worker productivity and quality.
Lynn Williams, former president of the United Steelworkers union, praises recent collective-bargaining agreements in the steel, automobile, and telecommunications industries as "precisely what America needs. …