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A Vital Choice: Which Shall It Be?

March 1, 1992 -

The examples of imaginative new approaches to labour relations described in "Labour and Management on Trial Together" can be multiplied many times. The radical Left is quick to dismiss these changes as management gimmicks designed to dominate workers, undermine unions, lower wages, and increase profits. Others criticize employers for being purely pragmatic and motivated by self-interest. But it cannot be denied that one valuable element of the new participatory management style is the recognition that ordinary employees count, and that they must have an opportunity to express themselves, learn new skills, and exercise responsibility. The resulting positive effect on the functioning of businesses is not accidental. This is the fruit of respecting workers and according them a measure of freedom, enabling them to experience a sense of achievement and pride in what they are doing.

It is clear that Canadian management and trade union leadership is faced with a fundamental choice. It can continue to view labour-management relations as a power struggle. In that struggle, the Left will seek to recruit the power of the state for its own end. At the opposite spectrum, management will defend its "rights" by perpetuating a rigid authority structure in the workplace and curtailing union influence as much as possible. The current conflict between the Ontario government and the business community represents this unfortunate dilemma, unfortunate because it obstructs, if not destroys, the flourishing of a just and free society.

The second choice is that both sides begin to think in fresh ways, not about how politics can be used to bolster one's own position, but how imaginative and wholesome ways of organizing and managing work can be fostered. This new and promising approach can be truly successful only if it is based on genuine respect for the meaning and dignity of work and the responsibility and freedom of each worker.

There is no doubt that the primary responsibility for introducing constructive changes in the workplace lies with management. Wherever management rises to that challenge and workers and unions respond positively, everyone benefits. Such examples should be cheered as inviting and. instructive incentives for others to follow.