Now, Labor Can Be Part Of The Solution

Union leaders were all smiles at the AFL-CIO Executive Council's annual powwow in Bal Harbour, Fla., that started on Feb. 15. With a friendly face in the White House at last and Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich on hand with words of support, labor chieftains eagerly debated which items should top their political wish list now that their years in the political wilderness are over.

But labor's best course may be to soft-pedal the demands it desires most. Since at least the 1960s, organized labor has wanted to bring the nation's labor laws into line with those of other industrialized countries by making it easier for employees to form or join unions. A decade's worth of attacks from Corporate America and Washington have made these concerns an even higher priority. However, focusing only on relatively narrow reforms would open unions up to the old charge that they are merely special-interest groups. Employers would go on the warpath, labor's public image would suffer again, and Clinton might well run for cover.

The better course: jump on the bandwagon Reich tried to get rolling in Florida. He told council members that he wants a national commission to devise a broad-based agenda for how to create a new era of cooperative labor-management relations. By positioning themselves at the forefront of the movement, unions can market themselves as friends of U. S. competitiveness. "It's essential that labor become more visible champions of innovation," says Thomas A. Kochan, a management professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a candidate for Reich's commission. "This is a chance for labor to help set the terms of the debate."

ONCE BURNED. But unions will blow their opportunity unless they overcome their fears of cooperative work systems. In these, labor and management team up to improve productivity. Labor leaders, from AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland on down, have long suspected that management wanted to use cooperation to curb the power of unions.Reich hasn't finalized the details of the commission's agenda, but it's clear that if labor embraces employee participation, he'll have an easier time addressing the legal reforms they seek. The commission, says Reich, will look at "how to give frontline workers new ways to have a voice in their companies." And it will explore "how to restore a level playing field for working men and women who have been penalized for even trying to form a union," Reich says.

While all this may sound like something unions would jump at, many harbor a deep distrust of labor-management cooperation schemes. Some have been burned by managers who use teams to create company-dominated unions, as did Electromation Inc., according to a recent finding by the National Labor Relations Board.

And some rank-and-file workers feel that team systems often improve performance simply by generating assembly-line peer pressure to work harder. "We've had dozens of examples of worker participation that haven't worked," says George J. Kourpis, president of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, which has issued two recent studies warning about the dangers of teams.

The naysayers ignore the worker-participation plans that have worked brilliantly. The UAW played a key role in the turnaround at Ford Motor Co. during the early 1980s. In part by adopting employee-involvement systems, Ford has improved its assembly-line productivity by 36% since 1980, according to a report last year by automotive consultant Harbour & Associates. Today, some Ford plants are as productive as those of Japanese auto makers. Says Jack Hall, Ford's labor-relations director: "We absolutely believe that unions have helped us to improve our competitiveness."

SUCCESS STORIES. Other old-line unions have taken similar leading roles. For instance, the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union, which represents workers who assemble Xerox Corp.'s copiers, has helped the company cut costs on its machines by millions of dollars and stanch market-share losses to Japanese rivals. And since the early 1980s, the United Steelworkers of America has helped most major steelmakers set up hundreds of labor-management participation committees. National Steel Corp., where cooperation is the most advanced, posted operating profits of $11 a ton last year, vs. a $19 loss at its major rivals--a performance the company attributes in large part to its partnership with the USW.

It is success stories like these that Reich's commission aims to promote. But it's not yet clear how much support the idea will get from labor. In 1989, labor's divisions over cooperation led the AFL-CIO to kill an internal report on what it called The Evolution of Work, which called for experiments with many cooperative ideas. Now, labor may get another shot at this question. Union leaders shouldn't let the opportunity slip between their fingers.

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