Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Creating Labor-Management Partnerships

March 1, 1996 -

Addison-Wesley, 1994, 240 pp.,

There are now a mountain of books, articles, reports, task forces, and conferences devoted to the need for a radically new approach to labour-management relations. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of literature. How do we sort out the hype and the faddish from the genuine article?

Creating Labour-Management Partnerships authoured by two academics who are also experienced consultants, cuts through the jargon and the abstractions that bedevil much of the existing literature. They write clearly, and the result is a book with sharp analysis and helpful advice on how to change from "confrontational union-management relationships toward more effective systems of collaboration."

Woodworth and Meek provide a brief overview of the confrontational nature of the history of labour in the United States. Management philosophy viewed workers and unions as something to be controlled and limited. Not surprisingly, unions reacted with distrust and militancy, so that labour-management relations was often reduced to a power struggle between two " adversaries. This legacy set the stage for a strict separation between the prerogatives of management to manage and for workers to follow instructions. The influence of Frederick Taylor, though he intended to benefit both labour and management, only served to widen the gulf between the two parties. This is why collective agreements in North America tend to be very lengthy documents full of legalistic rules and complicated procedures. If parties do not trust one another, they try to maintain control by an extensive system of rule making.

There were early enlightened exceptions, but mainstream North American industrial relations was based on an adversarial model that has given rise to some spectacular labour conflicts. Various attempts were made to overcome the obvious shortcomings of adversarialism. But most of them, until quite recently, were one-sided attempts to deal with surface problems, worker discontent, and inefficiencies, without changing the authority-dependency relationship in the workplace.

U.S. government policy was largely aimed at maintaining some kind of balance of power. Regulations, mediation, and emergency intervention were the main public policy tools to keep the system functioning.

But a new wind is now blowing. Stimulated by strong international competition, tough economic times, severe decline in major industries, and rapid technological changes, a growing number of American companies and unions are experimenting with new ways of relating to one another.

This book describes in detail the various workplace innovations in American companies. Some are far-reaching, including changes in structures, policies, and especially in attitudes. Most involve the so-called brownfield experiments (revamping relations in existing plants), such as at Magna Copper Company in Tuscon, Arizona, operating a number of copper mines and smelters. This company, with a long history of labour turmoil, was in danger of going bankrupt. That prospect was the shock that moved management and unions to fundamentally change their relationship from an adversarial to a cooperative one.

Change in attitude

What makes this book especially valuable is the careful way in which it reviews the reasons for failed experiments (Eastern Airlines) as well as successful ones (GM-Toyota NUMMI plant in Fremont, California). It makes it clear that an indispensable requirement is a radical change in attitude on the part of labour as well as of management. Management must be willing to share responsibility and to delegate authority unions must be willing to assume such responsibility. The authors explain that in addition to a radical change in attitude, a great deal of very careful attention must be paid to the little details.

Woodworth and Meek write that the new strategy of labour-management partnership is undertaken for only one fundamental reason: it makes good business sense. They believe that "economics, rather than enlightened social philosophy, seems to drive this movement toward cooperation and a redistribution of power." However, while economics and practical results are legitimate considerations, treating one another with respect is ultimately a question of justice, not merely economics. The problem with doing something only because it pays is that it ties our behaviour to self-interest. But self-interest (although quite appropriate within limits) is in the end not a trustworthy guide for human behaviour.

Despite this caveat, I have no hesitation in highly recommending this book. At a practical level, this book is filled with wise counsel that deserves a very careful hearing—and doing. That holds especially for the situation in Canada, where despite exceptions, labour-management relations is in desperate need of radical surgery.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment