Turning Down the Decibel Count: U.S. Labour Relations Under the Microscope
Turning Down the Decibel Count: U.S. Labour Relations Under the Microscope

Turning Down the Decibel Count: U.S. Labour Relations Under the Microscope

June 1 st 1995

As in all industrial nations, the role of unions in the United States is undergoing significant changes. Remarkably, the number of unionized American workers has been shrinking dramatically, to 16 per cent of the U.S. workforce—11 per cent in the private sector. American unions are now unsure how they can continue to play a vital role in the lives of workers and in society.

Furthermore, U.S. labour-management relations are under severe pressure as a result of the dynamics of increased global competition and far-reaching, rapid structural changes in the economy. Together, these developments provide compelling motivation to search for improvements in the relationship between labour and management.

Recently, the Clinton-appointed Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations released an extensive report aimed at modernizing labour legislation and improving labour-management relations. Chaired by Labor Secretary John T. Dunlop, the Commission addressed three questions. How can productivity be improved by labour-management cooperation and employee participation? What changes are needed to bring about improvements? What should be done to resolve workplace problems by the two parties themselves rather than by courts and other government agencies?

The Commission heard a great deal of evidence that labour-management partnership and employee participation are beneficial all around. Their recommendations focused on reducing the legal uncertainties affecting employee participation, and protecting the workers' freedom to be represented by a union or a professional organization. The Commission found that current legislation and practices are inadequate and called for changes to de-escalate conflict and to engender a climate of trust and cooperation. It recommended ways to speed up union representation votes, to remedy interference with union organizing campaigns, and to achieve first contract settlements.

The Commission singled out employer frustration with complex workplace regulations and litigation, and workers' concern about obstacles to the enforcement of their legal rights on the job. It concluded that the performance of companies would be much enhanced by a new teamwork approach in the workplace. Such an approach, they predicted, would improve the capabilities of employees, result in "soft" benefits such as reduced absenteeism and fewer grievances, and a more collaborative bargaining approach. Further, the anticipated gains for unions are improved wages and benefits, a more democratic work environment, enhanced job security, and more recognition of the role of unions within the workplace and within society.

New directions

An example of a more collaborative bargaining approach is an innovative 15-year "living contract" agreement between Magma Copper, a U.S. mining firm, and the United Steel workers, containing provisions that may be changed through renewed negotiations at any time during the life of the contract. One tangible result of this new relationship has been a 75 per cent productivity increase since 1988.

A United Steelworkers "New Directions" agreement with a number of steel companies includes a strategic joint partnership with an employment security provision. At Bethlehem Steel, current employees are guaranteed continued employment over the six-year term of the collective agreement, while the company has more leeway to shift individual workers to different jobs. At its Bums Harbor plant, union representatives participate in strategic and operational decisions, including reviewing budgets and business. This involvement takes place both through formal joint committees and through informal channels.

At General Motor's Saturn plant, shop-floor employees are organized into fully self-directed teams, considerably expanding and enriching their jobs. Via a variety of joint teams and task forces, union representatives take part in operational and business decisions, including decisions about marketing and public relations, product development, training and development, operations, and work schedule planning. When Saturn was forced to reduce production in March 1994, there were no layoffs, but workers were provided with training in skills improvement and problem solving.

Obviously, one of the major obstacles to sound labour relations, in Canada as well as in the United States, is the deeply ingrained distrust and animosity between labour and management. The Commission summarized its views on this crucial aspect of labour relations as follows:

It is time to turn down the decibel count, the adversarial and hostility quotient that all too often mars discussion of worker-management relations. We must "come and reason together" to devise the best ways to assure that workers have their legislatively proscribed and socially agreed upon rights and employment norms, without burdening the economy with excessive litigation and extended administrative proceedings. We must develop institutions and practices that will allow employees and firms to cooperate at the workplace in ways that will contribute optimally to economic growth and competitive performance and to the fulfillment of social norms.

While such a formulation sounds too much like a technical manual for constructing some gizmo, no one should find fault with the underlying desire for more sensible and just ways of developing labour-management relations. They are needed on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Harry Antonides
Harry Antonides

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.


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