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Unions Need to Stop Being So Nice

Should labor unions arbitrarily assume that any plan introduced by management will likely have a negative effect on the workers? Should organized labor quit playing ball with management? Should they stop cooperating? In a word, should unions just say No to everything?

As cynical and profoundly adversarial as these questions may seem, recent history more or less gives Yes as the answer.

Take, for example, the Democracy in the Workplace campaign of the 1980s. Using as its template the Japanese employer-employee relationship (the one reputed to be kicking our butts in the marketplace), American businesses urged unions to think “outside the box,” to open themselves up to a whole new philosophy regarding the way we do business.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the statistician and ergonomics expert credited with having “invented” the postwar Japanese business model, traveled the United States conducting seminars and hawking his book (“Out of the Crisis”) on how to save the American economy. Japan was clearly on the ascendancy, and we were rapidly falling behind.

Management gushed over Deming’s innovative 14-point program for improving efficiency, and unions were quick to buy in to his refreshingly pro-labor stance, where workers on the floor were given an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, share in the profits, and be treated as “equals.”

Of course, what happened was hideous and predictable. Management degraded Deming’s philosophy by implementing only those parts of it that benefited them in the short-term, and rejecting anything that cost money or resembled “joint-ownership” of the workplace. Because they’d always feared and resented unions, they hoped that “going Japanese” would be an opportunity to neutralize them.

Democracy in the Workplace turned out to be more hype than substance. It took the form of grassroots employee committees which, predictably (and with the company’s urging), ignored or sidestepped the elected union leadership. Not that there’s anything wrong with employee involvement; in fact, having a majority of the workers genuinely involved in day-to-day activities is a positive force.

But in many cases these ad hoc committees were free-for-alls, with management offering rewards to the weakest, most pliant workers on the floor as payment for supporting company initiatives. This was “democracy” in its least attractive form. Ironically, when it came time for some really serious decision-making to be done, even these company stooges were brushed aside, particularly when their suggestions conflicted with management’s master plan.

The mid-1980s and early 1990s turned out to be a period of huge layoffs. Because cutting the workforce was now a priority, Deming’s subtle managerial philosophy had been clumsily reduced to an aggressive, unremitting drive to lower head counts. By the time the smoke cleared, and the Democracy in the Workplace movement had petered out, employee rolls had been slashed, unions had been weakened, and company profits had soared.

And then, quite suddenly, the so-called “Japanese Miracle” was relegated to yesterday’s news. As other emerging Asian markets arrived on the scene and began competing with Japan, the vaunted Japanese model lost a bit of its luster. Today, if you suggest emulating Japanese techniques, you’ll elicit yawns. China is the world’s new economic hero. Fortunately, its bizarre mixture of bureaucratic Communism and rapacious turbo-capitalism isn’t available for export.

Another example of a bad idea was NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). This treaty has been with us now for 14 years, and it’s obvious that the wildly optimistic predictions were mistaken. NAFTA was supposed to create jobs for American workers; instead, nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs have been lost.

Additionally, NAFTA was supposed to help the Mexican economy to such an extent-create so many new jobs in Mexico-that immigration into the U.S. would be reduced to a trickle. Instead, not only has immigration to the U.S. increased, but Mexican farmers have been devastated by U.S. government subsidies to agribusiness, and workers at the maquiladoras (border factories) have been laid off or had their wages drastically cut.

So who profited from NAFTA? No big surprise. It was the most powerful business groups in the three countries privy to the arrangement: Canada, Mexico and the U.S. President Clinton’s chief economic advisor, Robert Rubin (formerly of the financial giant Goldman Sachs), was a personal friend of Carlos Salinas, the wealthy former president of Mexico. NAFTA was a classic “inside job,” shoved through Congress by a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats.

But the best (worst) example of a management enterprise that hurt unions was the swapping of priorities in contract negotiations, which began in earnest during the 1990s and continues today. In order to hang on to their precious health care and pension benefits, unions were persuaded to put off (or even give back) wage increases. With benefits in jeopardy, unions were willing to sign contracts that swapped short-term purchasing power for long-term security.

The central flaw in this strategy was that it had no brakes. Once the unions agreed to forego wage increases in return for maintaining their benefits, management’s next move was swift and predictable: they came after the benefits. The unions’ voluntary waiver of wage increases served no purpose; health care and pension benefits continued to be eaten away. In the end, unions wound up losing both wages and benefits.

The same applied to the two-tier wage format. Reluctantly, unions agreed to sign contracts that included two-tier wage structures (a configuration where new hires are locked into a permanently lower wage schedule than senior workers) in return for hanging on to their medical and pension coverage. A case of ideological integrity being sacrificed for long-term stability.

This “selling out” of future employees was an extremely tough call for the unions, a trade-off they agonized over. To their credit, many locals refused to go along, even though they were under enormous pressure to do so. For those who did agree, as soon as management had that two-tier wage provision under their belt (and despite assurances that it wouldn’t happen), they began cutting into the very medical and pension benefits the union had sold its soul to preserve. It was ugly.

So what’s the answer? If going the extra mile, meeting management more than halfway and expecting them to do the right thing, isn’t the solution, then what is? One suggestion might be that labor needs to move in the opposite direction. Instead of détente and mutual cooperation, a harsher, more “primitive” approach may be what’s needed.

If accommodating management has lead to treachery and deceit, maybe resorting to strikes, more strikes, lawsuits, and calling management’s bluff at every turn would be the more effective tactic. Something needs to be done to back them off. Even if that means going to war. Given all the bitter medicine unions have been forced to swallow over the last 25 years, what have they got to lose?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

 

 

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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