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What Unions Should Do

October 1, 1991

Despite plenty of bad news on the Canadian labour scene, not every trade unionist is committed to the class-conflict idea. We should not be fooled by the high-profile rhetoric from the likes of Darryl Bean, Bob White, and Jean-Claude Parrot. Some union leaders and members are quietly helping to develop excellent forms of labour-management cooperation in the workplaces of North America. Although they are the exception, they are yet heartening reminders and signs of the possibility and promise of a better way.

Some are no doubt convinced that unions thrive on discontent in the workplace and that the world would be better off without them. John Hoerr, an American business journalist who specializes in labour-management relations, disagrees. He believes that unions can and should be part of the solution to the serious problems now facing North American business. (See John Hoerr, "What Should Unions Do?" Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1991, pp. 30-45.)

Hoerr's important essay contains a warning and a challenge for unions: begin to play a constructive role in cooperation with management or face the same downward slide experienced by U.S. unions (membership stands at about 17 per cent of the total workforce compared to 36 per cent in Canada). He is convinced that companies need the responsible participation of trade unions if they are to thrive in the current, volatile and highly competitive global environment.

Hoerr writes that unions need to reinvent themselves and "develop a vision of how workers should help shape the technological and social revolution that is transforming the workplace." "What Should Unions Do?" contains a helpful review of several recent publications that elaborate on the need for mapping out a new and imaginative role for unions.

Scientific Management in Reverse

Hoerr reminds us that industrial unions were a logical and largely successful response to the emergence of mass production factories, especially after the mid-1930s. But this type of trade unionism also contained the seeds of its own eventual decline because it adopted a mirror-image strategy of scientific management. Industrial unions developed a policy of "job control" that included the separation of managing/planning and doing the actual work. The results are the now well-known inflexible job categories and rigid workplace rules that straight jacket business and hamstring management.

When national boundaries are easily crossed and competition is severe, the need is not only for flexibility but also for the combined best efforts of everyone involved. Employers and unions in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere have learned to cooperate with one another to their mutual benefit. Some North American companies have begun to tap the knowledge and skills of their employees by such innovations as self-managing teams.

One example is the Corning Company, which, in cooperation with the union representing its employees, has done away with its traditional authoritarian management style. In its stead, Corning has introduced a form of joint decision making that recognizes "the rights of workers to participate in decisions that affect their working lives" and "a work environment free of arbitrary and authoritarian attitudes." These are more than fine-sounding words. According to Hoerr, the changes introduced at all of Coming's 28 U.S. factories have enabled the employees to experience a new sense of pride of workmanship and direct involvement in the affairs of this company.

Of particular interest to Canadian readers is the work design project undertaken at the Shell Canada chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario. (See Tom Rankin, New Forms of Work Organization: The Challenge for North American Unions, University of Toronto Press, 1990.) This plant is staffed and operated in a way that is very different from traditional hierarchical and adversarial labour-management relations. Work teams are responsible for operating the plant and have a major say in hiring, training, progression, and day-to-day decision making. Management levels are reduced and there are only two work classifications.

Instead of a lengthy collective agreement with precise rules, Local 800 of the Energy and Chemical Workers Union and management are guided by a flexible set of work rules, a "philosophy statement," and a very brief collective agreement. Flexibility, joint decision making, and learning a variety of skills are the key elements of labour relations at the Shell plant. Not surprisingly, the union at this plant has come under severe attack from the traditionalists in trade union ranks.

The results at the Shell plant have shown there is much to be gained when labour and management learn to work together in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. In fact, as Hoerr warns, unless unions are prepared to let go of their old adversarial ways, they will become irrelevant relics of a bygone era. They will then only have themselves to blame for their short-sightedness and intransigence. Conversely, if good sense and civility still win in the workplaces of this nation, they would undoubtedly help to patch up the now dangerously strained fabric of this confused and troubled nation.