Women, Unions, and "Participative Management": Organizing in the Sunbelt
Guillermo J. Grenier
As more and more working mothers enter the labor force, the structure of industries that employ women is changing. Not only are apparel and electronics firms establishing "runaway shops" in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia, but corporations with branch plants remaining in the United States are "modernizing" their management policies. With the increasing popularity of "quality circles" (adapted from Japanese models), firms have enthusiastically embraced various forms of "participative management" -- policies that purport to give workers a measure of control over their work environment. Yet beneath the ethic of participation is often a clear antiunion stance. Women who work in these firms are facing a new workplace where modern plant equipment is often combined with management policies that limit women's ability to organize.
In this article we examine the use of participative management policies during a union drive at a new plant in the Southwest. Since the plant work force was dominantly female and included a large proportion of Hispanic women workers, many of whom were mothers, the case helps us to understand the complex interrelationship between labor activism, gender, and ethnicity. We argue that no one factor accounts for the union's loss by a two-to-one vote. Participative management techniques, the firm's use of legal and illegal antiunion tactics, and the economic vulnerability of young women workers all played a role. In addition, the union's failure to campaign for community support may have been a factor. More important, our interpretation emphasizes the process of the union drive itself and the factors at work in building workers' consciousness of the need for a union, as well as the timing of later management countertactics. A promising start was turned around by a stepped-up, highly orchestrated antiunion campaign.