A Matter of Survival
January 1, 1991 -
Amidst much bad news of layoffs and economic hard times, there is also some good news, in the sense that a more constructive attitude to labour-management relations is being developed. To be sure, the old ways of antagonistic labour relations are still very much alive, especially in Canada. But there is now a dawning awareness that both labour and management are directly affected, for good or ill, by how they work together.
To start with the old-style approach to labour relations, there is a deeply ingrained and continuously articulated attitude among certain labour leaders which perpetuates the idea that the employer is the enemy. The result is a poisoned atmosphere in the workplace. Mistrust and antagonism predominate, evident in the workers' low morale, indifference to their work, and continuous haggling over grievances. Most distressingly, employees receive no satisfaction from their work and feel little responsibility for what they are doing and for the well-being of the company.
Labour leaders and educators with this mindset are those who tend to write for union publications, which often excel in moralistic posturing and a simplistic division of the world between the good (us) and the bad (them). High profile spokespersons that readily come to mind include prominent labour leaders Shirley Carr (president of the Canadian Labour Congress), Bob White (president of the Canadian Auto Workers union), and Jean-Claude Parrot (president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers).
One of the results of this "us" versus "them" mentality in the workplace is that it seriously hampers and can even threaten the very existence of a company, especially when hard times occur. For whatever reasons, most of which appear to be rather pragmatic and utilitarian, there is now a growing awareness in some union and employer circles that the old ways of fighting each other are self-destructive. The realization is dawning that labour and management are mutually dependent on each other and that a business can only thrive if the two parties work together.
To Survive Means to do it Together
A number of interesting and instructive experiments in cooperative labour relations are now in progress. This is how one manager of a large automobile plant in Janesville, Wisconsin describes how he relates to the local union president: "Most of the things we talk about, it's 4we.' It's not us versus them, We've pretty much recognized our goals are the same. We make decisions together. ... I don't think there's anything I know I wouldn't tell them if they asked me."
The union president agreed: "There's something different going on. Years ago, it wasn't any of our business what went on in the business." Another long-term plant worker said, "It used to be you'd say something to management and they'd say Tm the boss. You're the worker.' Now what they do is we sit down and talk about the problem. For us to survive, it takes both of us to do it together."
John Smith, administrative assistant to the president of the United Steelworkers of America, articulated the new mindset as follows: "An adversarial relationship cannot be compatible with today's market. We're part of a world trade. We're no longer king this and king that." "Survival is probably not too strong a word for what drives the two parties together," according to Lynn Williams, president of the United Steelworkers of America. (Sharon Cohen, "Forming an Uneasy Alliance," The Globe and Mail, December 18, 1990, p.B6)
While the new cooperative attitude has by no means taken over in every workplace, a considerable number of large American companies have begun to work hard at involving their employees in the affairs of their companies. A recent survey of 476 Fortune 1,000 companies found that 46 per cent of them had introduced some form of self-management work teams, whereas the percentage three years ago was only 27.
The one recurring theme in explaining this development is increased global competition and the need to survive. Said one American management professor: "Companies don't change because they're nice. They change because they want to make money. ... If it wasn't for Japan Inc., I don't think a lot of this would be happening."
Another spokesman, a manager of a large worker-run plant in the U.S. said: "It's not a social experiment. It makes good business sense. Nobody knows the job as well as those doing it. If you empower those people to make the decisions, they make good ones." (Sharon Cohen, "Everyone's a Boss," The Globe and Mail, December 17, 1990, p.B6)
The Key is Trust and Responsibility
Workers participating in employee involvement schemes say that they feel good about being given responsibility and being appreciated for the contribution they are making. It is obvious that trust and responsibility are the two vital ingredients in improved labour relations. It is also obvious that all efforts to improve the workplace will fail if management's only concern is with the bottom line and if there is no consideration of how the workers actually feel about their jobs and their place in the company. That's why a change of attitude requires more than mere token changes. Experience has shown that such changes are not easily forthcoming, but it requires real determination on the part of both management and workers (and their unions) to find new and more cooperative ways and, most importantly, more rewarding ways of working.
The big question is whether Canada will be left behind in this development. The climate of animosity and distrust and continuous warfare on the shop floor does not make a country an inviting place to invest. Canada's traditional labour leaders, such as Carr, White, and Parrot, are adept at blaming economic hard times and layoffs on the free trade agreement with the United States and the policies of the current Canadian government. But they would serve the true interest of all Canadian workers if they abandoned their old style of "us" versus "them" rhetoric and began to provide the kind of imaginative leadership that Canada so urgently needs. In the meantime, all instances of good labour relations in this country are to be nurtured and welcomed. (See: Yes, Canadian Workers Can Export to Japan.)