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What Happens to Truth

Necessity is the Mother of Cooperation

September 1, 1992 -

Those committed to the traditional us-versus-them approach to collective bargaining are skeptical about the newly-discovered sense of partnership between some unions and employers. These skeptics are eager to point out that employers call for cooperation because they are desperate, and anyway, they are only interested in manipulating unions and workers into a position of powerlessness and dependency.

This is exactly the thrust of Donald M. Wells (a political economist who teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario) in his Public Policy Options article, "Labor-Management Cooperation; or, In Other Words, Bust the Union" (October 1992). Describing a number of experiments in labour-management cooperation, Wells concludes that these attempts are invariably at the expense of unions and merely serve to advantage employers. He writes:

In each case, managers used labor-management cooperation reforms to undermine the legitimacy, power, autonomy and key functions of the unions. The findings confirm the fears of those unionists who see such changes as a threat to their interests. By the same token, these findings may allay the fears of managers who view such labor-management cooperation as a threat to their prerogative powers over the production process. 

In short, Wells argues that employers' rationale for cooperation is a mere subterfuge to undermine the workers' commitment to trade unionism and collective bargaining. He believes that his conclusion is "consistent with the view that such reforms are, in general, part of a trend toward non-union industrial relations in Canada and the United States."

Wells's alternative vision and suggestions are that the state should reinforce the power of unions in the workplace in the context of a perpetual adversarial relationship between labour and management. There are still plenty of segments of the mainline trade unions that believe this shopworn gospel of conflict. Fortunately, there are growing signs that others have turned a deaf ear to the pied pipers of traditional unionism and are prepared to experiment with more enlightened ideas and practices.

What may come as a surprise to some is that even in the automobile industry, a traditional stronghold of adversarial labour management relations, significant changes in management style have been put into effect. Hard times in this industry have forced a serious rethinking of the traditional approach to labour-management relations.

All major carmakers are now working at turning labour relations around because they have come to realize that a sullen workforce will not produce top-notch quality automobiles. And there is a growing list of instances where cooperation between labour and management have helped to turn a troubled automobile plant around. In some cases, new plants or new production lines have started from scratch with remarkable results. The latest example is the Chrysler Canada assembly plant in Bramalea, Ontario where the new LH car is produced.

A turnaround at Chrysler

Only a few years ago Chrysler Corporation found itself on the brink of disaster. Faced with enormous losses, it undertook a hard-headed and painful series of successful restructuring moves. But even now it is confronted with immense difficulties because of lagging sales, intense competition, and the need for very costly investments in new technologies needed to boost production and quality.

The Bramalea plant design and management represent a break from past practices. Besides investing heavily in the physical plant, Chrysler management instilled a sense of involvement and enthusiasm among its employees. That is why when the first LH car was driven off the assembly line last summer, beaming company executives and union leaders shared in their praise of the product and expressed their confidence in the future of the company.

How was this new-found sense of partnership achieved? Chrysler decided to eliminate the old authoritarian management style and instead involved the workers and their union in every aspect of the design of the plant and the operation of the assembly line. Under the leadership of plant manager John Franciosi, careful attention was paid to worker involvement. As Franciosi explained it: "Empowering workers is a big buzzword in manufacturing right now. But we're not just saying it, we're doing it."

When the plant closed in December 1991 for retooling, Franciosi did not simply inform the workers but explained to them exactly what the company planned to do and when they would be recalled for retraining and starting the new plant. The company sent bi-weekly mailings to its employees, reporting to them on the design and progress of the new equipment and inviting them to visit the plant and see for themselves how it was shaping up.

Instead of leaving the construction of the assembly line entirely to engineers, Chrysler management asked its workers for advice. They paid attention to every detail of the assembly line with a view to building in maximum convenience for the workers. For example, the science of ergonomics (designing tools to minimize strain and discomfort) was used to adjust machinery to the operators rather than the other way around. Tasks that at one time caused a high number of strains and accidents were redesigned to make the installation of heavy and awkward equipment much easier.

Pooling resources

It's obvious that a car assembly plant is not a social club. The overriding concern is still quality and efficient production. But that concern is now coupled with a new awareness of the indispensable role of the employees who actually make the product. This is why Chrysler management and the union have paid a great deal of attention to training and education. The training programs are a joint effort by management and the union, in cooperation with a number of training centres. Besides courses in technical proficiency, there is also one aimed at fostering better communications between workers and management. Just a few years ago, such a course would have been unthinkable. Now it has become one of the most popular.

Today, there is maximum sharing of information among the various departments at the Bramalea plant. What used to be thought of as an engineering, production, or sales problem is now tackled by pooling the skills of the various professional and production employees. As part of this process, management and engineering staff quickly respond to all employee suggestions. Employees whose ideas are accepted are recognized and rewarded. The prompt response to all suggestions contrasts sharply with previous practices when workers' suggestions were often ignored. As Derek Watson, who acts as a trainer in the company's quality awareness workshop, reported:

We bring up issues related to quality that he [the plant manager] might not be aware of. They listen and respect our judgment. Whatever we bring up is taken care of immediately. The support we now have from that corner is unbelievable. Traditionally, the things that the guy in that corner didn't know about were unbelievable.

Undoubtedly, not everything is sweetness and light in the Bramalea plant, but it is obvious that management and workers are both working hard at creating a new atmosphere in which the us-versus-them attitude is being replaced by a let's-do-the-best-possible-job-together attitude.