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Labor Politics

Clinton Administration's Labor Policy: Cooperate!

By Laura McClure

 

Imagine a future in which happy workers and fair-minded managers labor together harmoniously to increase corporate productivity and competitiveness. If this sounds like your dream workplace, you'd fit right in with the Clinton administration's Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations. Those of us who see a union in their ideal workplace--maybe even a hard-fighting union...well, come on, this is the nineties, not the thirties!

For nearly a year, the Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations has been holding hearings on federal workplace policy. The 10-member Commission serves an important function for the administration by postponing most of organized labor's legislative wish list for a couple of years. Meanwhile, the Commission's deliberations have sent white papers and thinkpieces whirling around Washington. The Commission will eventually recommend specific policies to the administration--although its ability to actually affect legislation is dubious.

That the Commission is mostly interested in labor-management cooperation is not surprising: It was convened jointly by the Labor and Commerce Departments in March 1993, accompanied by joyous calls for a new era of labor relations based on "teamwork and mutual respect," in Labor Secretary Robert Reich's words. The Commission is headed by John Dunlop (former Labor Secretary under Gerald Ford and now Harvard professor), and includes Xerox Corporation President Paul Allaire, former United Auto Workers president Doug Fraser, and a number of academics.

Labor's response to the new commission and the Clinton administration's approach to workplace issues has been--typically--divided. While the AFL-CIO and many top union leaders have warmly received the Commission, labor activists are not so pleased.

Organized labor, having spent 12 depressing years under hostile Republican administrations, is needy. Unions are weak and getting weaker, with less than 16 percent of the workforce now represented. Unions rarely mount new organizing campaigns these days, and when they do, they often lose. Strikes have become virtually impossible, now that employers regularly and successfully replace strikers. (The number of major strikes has dropped from a high of about 400 a year in the mid-1970s to about 35 a year now.)

While labor's decline is due in part to a slow internal rot that has been spreading since labor's heyday around 1945, federal policy has not helped. Wretched enforcement of the labor laws that do exist, a National Labor Relations Board that moves like molasses, and unfriendly lawmakers and courts have added to labor's ineffectiveness. The situation has gotten so bad that even the AFL-CIO's famously stodgy president, Lane Kirkland, has suggested that unions might as well ignore labor laws altogether, since they don't serve workers in the least. In this era, the most successful struggles rely not on the law or on any kind of labor-management protocol, but on stealthy tactics like "running the plant backwards," a method pioneered by United Auto Workers insurgent Jerry Tucker to foul things up inside the workplace without striking.

 

Labor's Wish List

Unionists want reforms that would, among other things:

Many unionists hoped that they were a step closer to winning some of these reforms when the Clinton administration came to office. Although Clinton had a reputation of avoiding even the mention of the word "union," organized labor enthusiastically supported him once he was nominated, and expected to get something in return.

When Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown announced the formation of the Dunlop Commission last March, the AFL-CIO declared that it was pleased. Some unionists expressed relief that a number of the commissioners named--including Chairman John Dunlop, Harvard professor Richard Freeman, former labor secretary Ray Marshall, and University of Wisconsin professor Paula Voos--have been known to support some of the basic reforms labor wants.

But the mandate the Clinton administration gave to the Commission was basically pro-business. The Commission is supposed to investigate three questions:

  1. What (if any) new methods or institutions should be encouraged or required to enhance workplace productivity through labor-management cooperation and employee participation?
  2. What (if any) changes should be made in the present legal framework and practices of collective bargaining to enhance cooperative behavior, improve productivity, and reduce conflict and delay?
  3. What (if anything) should be done to increase the extent to which workplace problems are directly resolved by the parties themselves, rather than through recourse to state and federal courts and government bodies?

While some of the reforms unions want might conceivably be squeezed into this framework, it won't be easy. Labor's simplest historical mission, to protect workers' standard of living, is not a goal the Commission is asked to pursue. The fundamental management goal of increasing productivity, however, is a centerpiece of the Commission's mandate.

Above all, the Commission's charge is to find ways to enhance labor-management "cooperation." Cooperation can mean anything from a health and safety committee with union and management representatives to a nonunion auto plant where workers are organized into "teams" with the goal of constantly increasingly productivity. Progressive unionists have developed a critique of labor-management cooperation, or "jointness," based on workers' experiences. A high percentage of cooperative programs are superficial attempts by management to enlist workers in improving efficiency--without actually giving workers any meaningful new authority. Jointness can also be a corrupting influence on union officials, offering powerful incentives to push the company's agenda.

Some unionists who have testified before the Commission have voiced complaints about jointness. But they've been overshadowed by corporate representatives testifying to the success of various cooperative efforts--although often in the vaguest terms. "I've been absolutely impressed with the extraordinary changes that are going on in the workplace, both nonunion and union companies all across America," gushed National Association of Manufacturers president Jerry Jasinowski at a Commission hearing in November. Everywhere you look, he said, companies are "knocking down the old structures and making the kind of cultural changes which do really make a difference with respect to productivity and quality...."

William Stone of Louisville Plate Glass and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was a bit more blunt, but still made the pitch for worker "empowerment": "I run my company. I enjoy business. I enjoy the products. I enjoy the activity. But it's ultimately for profit. If you do not have a good, happy workforce today, if you're not willing to invest your time and effort to personal involvement and empowerment and respect for your individual employees, you aren't going to be there."

Labor Secretary Reich has taken the lead in promoting the "I'm okay, you're okay" workplace of the future. He likes to say that he judges companies by the "pronoun test"--whether workers refer to the company as "we" or "they."

The Commission members themselves seem to be edging toward a view of the workplace in which unions are replaced by a new brand of employer paternalism that gives workers a "voice" in decisions. Even Paula Voos, thought to be one of the more pro-labor Commission members, is less than emphatic about unions, and embraces the Commission's general mission. "One view we're hearing...is that we need to have better relationships generally--less adversarialism, less bad feeling that comes sometimes from bitter strikes and bitter organizing drives...to work on some of the troubled aspects of American labor relations in order to facilitate cooperation." She adds, "I have been very impressed by the commitment of American business to these new involvement and empowerment programs."

Voos denies that Commission members view organized labor as anachronistic. But, she says, "I think members of the Commission are fairly aware that there are new forms of organized labor--that it's not a matter of labor unions, but also employee associations, professional associations, and other mechanisms--a voice that may not involve membership in the AFL-CIO, but maybe newer forms." What's essential, Voos believes, is that worker representation cannot be "dominated or coerced" by employers.

 

Are Unions Really Necessary?

In its deliberations, the Commission keeps coming back to the question of how cooperative programs work in union versus nonunion settings. Reich and a number of Commission members seem to admire the German system of "codetermination," in which labor-management works councils participate jointly in various social, educational, and training programs. But the German model relies on the powerful role played by German unions, which can successfully bargain regionally and industry-wide over contentious wage and benefit issues--paving the way for smoother workplace relations. The U.S. has no such well-muscled force for worker representation. There's an irony in even talking about labor-management "cooperation" when workers have been getting bashed for decades. In this country, a "works council" would likely be little more than a company-initiated, company-dominated plan to increase productivity.

Communications Workers of America organizing director Larry Cohen, who testified before the Dunlop Commission in January, isn't happy about the Commission's infatuation with the works council idea. "I can't look into the [Commissioners'] brains, but I think they start from a premise -- and this is putting it nicely--that there's a representation gap in America compared to other industrialized countries, and that the current system isn't going to close the gap. And therefore, a number of them are interested in a works council approach--without unions. I've been to Germany and I know what works councils are about, and I know that no German union would for a minute advance the notion that you could have works councils without unions--that's the independent source of power. If workers go into a works council-type thing and they don't have a union backing them, they're dependent totally on management for everything."

In his testimony, Cohen told the Commission he saw few signs of a new cooperative spirit emerging in management. "I told them that in my eight years as organizing director, I couldn't come up with one single case in recent memory where employers have been neutral and allowed their workers to build an organization. Give us some case studies where there's anything but total opposition from the smallest employer to the largest. That's the kind of country we have right now and that's what they need to be talking about and documenting."

Cohen's union has amassed a depressing compendium of worker horror stories to illustrate how poorly U.S. law protects workers against employer abuse. The case studies tell about employers who have fired workers who try to organize, stalled union elections for years on end, concocted anti-union campaigns, threatened to take away workers' benefits if they organize... The National Labor Relations Board and U.S. labor law often effectively assist employers in stalling and subverting union activity.

Cohen and other unionists have also testified in opposition to one reform the Commission seems fascinated by: altering section 8A2 of the National Labor Relations Act. This clause, which makes it illegal for employers to create or dominate labor organizations, was intended to stop an employer tactic common in the 1930s: creating company unions as a way of subverting genuine worker-controlled organizations. Revising 8A2 has become a hot topic in some academic and corporate circles recently, especially since a couple of Supreme Court rulings found certain cooperative schemes to be in violation of the Act.

Opponents of 8A2 like to present the clause as an obstruction to the kind of cooperative workplace U.S. corporations need to be "competitive." They argue that 8A2 is part of the whole tired framework of U.S. labor law, which is predicated on perpetual labor-management conflict--a dinosaur law for our dinosaur unions.

"The 21st century, it's hard to believe, is less than seven years away," GTE Senior Vice President Bruce Carswell told the Commission. "Yet we're still operating under some labor laws designed from the industrial revolution era, if you will. Employment practices in the 1940s and 1950s were based on a confrontational style of labor management relations and our labor laws were written to provide ground rules for the conflict....During the last 15 years, the workplace has changed dramatically as conflict gives way to more cooperative arrangements, both in the union and nonunion environment." Supreme Court rulings against cooperative programs, he said, have "the potential of effectively disenfranchising employee involvement in the nonunion sector. This is a competitive and potential jobs disadvantage for America." (It has to be noted here that GTE's particular allegiance to the U.S. is questionable--the company operates in 41 nations overseas.)

Some other business representatives, however, have shrugged their shoulders about 8A2. In reality, only a few cases have been brought against companies for being in violation of the law.

From early on, people following the Dunlop Commission have wondered about the possibility of some kind of trade: Strike 8A2 in exchange for some of the fundamental reforms unions want. The AFL-CIO, while officially opposed to changing 8A2, has not made a major issue of retaining it. But the 8A2-trade scenario is unlikely, since 8A2 is not a particularly passionate issue for much of the business world. Why give up something meaningful like the freedom to intimidate employees during a union drive in exchange for a trifling bit of law like 8A2? Even if some trade were arranged in the Dunlop Commission, it's doubtful it could be carried off in Congress. When (or if) labor law reform finally sees the harsh light of day on the floor of Congress, 8A2 might just muster enough votes to pass, while meaningful labor law reform has not a chance--at this stage, anyway.

People on the progressive end of organized labor--the labor movement, such as it is--tend to be vociferously opposed to changing 8A2. Kim Moody of the rank-and-file oriented, Detroit-based monthly Labor Notes thinks that without 8A2, employers might happily return to the tactics they used in the 1920s and 1930s -- consciously creating company unions to subvert real unions.

The other problem with legalizing management-dominated labor organizations, Moody says, is that "these things actually work" in keeping unions out. "People who do organizing say that wherever you confront preexisting committees of this sort, you mostly lose. It's very hard to get around them."

 

Labor's Response: Divided

Anyone who follows the politics of organized labor can guess that labor's response to the Dunlop Commission has not been unified. From the beginning, the AFL-CIO leadership was eager to cooperate. It did not protest the Commission's mandate or its makeup. When AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland testified before the Commission in November, he didn't forcefully argue for any concrete reforms. Rather he told the Commission that his organization would present specific suggestions "soon."

If the Dunlop Commission is trying to define the role of workers as helpmates to their employers in a quest for productivity, they'll get no major argument from the AFL-CIO leadership. Federation leaders think labor-management cooperation is a fine idea, and that labor should see part of its goal as boosting U.S. "competitiveness."

The federation does have a proviso: that cooperation can only really happen when workers come to the table with their own base of strength (a union). "By definition, employee participation or empowerment is not something that can be done `to' workers," Kirkland told the Commission in November. "The workers themselves must have their own representative and must be able to stand on equal footing with the employer. Otherwise, participation and empowerment are merely words describing systems which leave management's basic prerogatives unchanged."

A similar analysis emerges in a report issued in February by the federation's Committee on the Evolution of Work (a body comprised of top officials from over two dozen AFL-CIO unions). The report, which was intended to contribute to the discussion surrounding the Dunlop Commission, promotes labor-management partnership as a high goal.

The committee hails companies that have "been open to joining with the unions representing their workers to create partnerships to transform the work system." Unions, the paper argues, should "take the initiative in stimulating, sustaining and institutionalizing a new system of work organization based upon full and equal labor-management partnerships. Such a system presupposes, of course, partners prepared to deal with each other as equals in an atmosphere of mutual recognition and respect....finding employers willing to reciprocate has been the rub. The time has come for labor and management to surmount past enmities and forge the kind of partnerships which can generate more productive, democratic and humane systems of work."

The Committee on the Evolution of Work would probably never have come together to produce this paper without prompting by the more active section of the labor bureaucracy, led by United Mine Workers president Richard Trumka. Early on, Trumka formed a committee of union leaders to develop a response to the Dunlop Commission--and it was to avoid being overshadowed by Trumka and company that the AFL-CIO reconvened its inactive Committee on the Evolution of Work, according to Washington unionists.

The Trumka committee went on to develop a "white paper" that calls for a wide range of reforms to expand workers' rights. The white paper will be submitted to the Dunlop Commission, and unionists say it will educate and activate rank and file union members around the country to fight for thoroughgoing reform.

Some of this work has already been taken up by activists in the national labor-community coalition Jobs with Justice and the National Rainbow Coalition. Last spring, these groups led a series of sit-ins at National Labor Relations Board offices to protest the anti-worker tilt of U.S. labor law.

In January, a regional hearing of the Commission in Boston was confronted by protesters organized by the state Jobs with Justice coalition. After some demonstrating, the Commission moved its agenda around to allow Steve Early, an international representative for the Communications Workers of America, to testify on behalf of Jobs with Justice (JwJ).

JwJ activists, Early said, had had high hopes for the Commission. But the Commission's hearings proved to be "as much concerned with the threat of labor-management cooperation allegedly posed by 8A2 as they have been about the busting of real unions and the widespread firing and intimidation of real union supporters. This suggests to us at Jobs with Justice that the Commission's current priorities are, to put it bluntly, screwed up."

National Jobs with Justice is now organizing local "workers' rights boards" to assist workers who've been abused on the job. JwJ hopes the boards will help foster local coalitions for workers' rights on a national scale. Winning those rights, activists say, will take years of organizing--they expect no miracles from the Clinton administration.