Levi Strauss Offers New Design in Labor Relations

By Uchitelle, Louis | THE JOURNAL RECORD, October 14, 1994 | Go to article overview

Levi Strauss Offers New Design in Labor Relations


Uchitelle, Louis, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Two issues stand out in labor-management relations today. One is whether unions help or hinder efforts by many companies to give workers more control over their jobs. The other is whether the nation's labor laws should be amended to make union organizing easier.

Not surprisingly, surveys show most corporations vote against unions on both counts. But now Levi Strauss Co., the nation's largest apparel manufacturer, has parted ways with the majority of its brethren.

Levi will allow the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, which represents one-third of its 18,000 workers at 30 American plants, to sign up thousands of Levi workers as long as the union helps the company revamp its production system.

"The more workers in the union," said Ronald Martz, manager of Levi's plant in Harlingen, Texas, which is serving as a laboratory to develop the new system, "the greater their voice, and that drives the process forward."

Levi, whose management is often described as progressive, appears to be driven by forces affecting other apparel makers as well. During the last two years, it has introduced a production system intended to fill orders more quickly for customers like Wal-Mart Stores.

Problems arose and the partnership agreement, announced Wednesday, is intended to solve them through the active participation of the union. The union, in turn, won the right to organize more workers with less resistance from the company.

Other corporations, among them General Electric, US Air and Whirlpool, have, like Levi Strauss, big groups of union and non-union employees. But Levi is among the few that have dropped resistance to the organizing of non-union workers.

Under the new Levi production system, workers at many plants have been reorganized into teams of about 15 people. The teams are intended to produce an entire garment more quickly than under the old system where people worked separately, each one performing a specific task like sewing on pockets or zippers.

With team members helping each other, the goal is to make a garment in less than a week, instead of 10 days or more under the old system.

But the new system bases incentive pay on quality as well as speed, and so far incentive payments at the Harlingen plant have not been as high for many workers as they were previously.

Many of the 320 workers who assemble Dockers slacks once could average as much as $9 an hour, including the piecework incentive. Now they have been cut back to less than $8 an hour. Team incentive payments are less, so far.

"Some people feel they are not being rewarded the way they should," said Alma Garcia, vice president of Amalgamated's Harlingen local, and herself a sewing machine operator who took a pay cut. "We did initially get bonus payments to make up for some of the lost piecework pay. I got $1,000. People do feel they are doing what they must to preserve their jobs, and we are trying to work out a new reward system."

In trying to shift decision and team management to the workers, the Levi Strauss-Amalgamated agreement addresses an issue that a presidential commission is struggling to resolve. …

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