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Workers' Participation In Management

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Workers participation in Management

Employee Involvement in management:

Tough Choices for Unions

Unions face a number of questions when they try to develop a response to an employer's demand for an Employee Involvement (EI) program. Is this an attempt to circumvent or even to bust the union? Should the union agree to participate, or should the union resist the effort to implement EI? Where can the union turn to find information and advice in dealing with EI? Even fundamental questions like "what is EI?" or "Why is the company trying to implement EI?" are difficult to answer.

To begin to understand and develop strategies about EI, a union must not only ask the obvious questions, such as should we participate, but must also examine EI as more than an isolated event occurring in a vacuum. EI programs, operating under a number of names, has been going on in a variety of forms and under a variety of names since the 1970s and are present in virtually all industries. The experimentation period is coming to a close as there is developing some consistency in the implementation of the Japanese-style management system or as Mike Parker has accurately described it, the Management-by-Stress (MBS) system. Although MBS has built into it a system for increasing workers' involvement in decisions relating to their jobs, the purpose of MBS is not to combat worker alienation through de-Taylorizing work. Rather, MBS is designed to eliminate costs in the production process, to increase the quality of whatever is being produced, and to increase flexibility in the production process. What appears to be occurring is not only some attempt to involve workers more in decision making at work, but an attempt to reshape the labor relations process, management structure and, to a certain extent, the production process.

In order to achieve "lean production" (another name for MBS), management must redesign how it manages its work force. Excessive supervision is an added cost in production. Experiments in teamwork have as one of their goals self-management, thus reducing the need for direct supervision. Team production meetings, peer pressure, "Attaboys," training designed to develop company loyalty, and reduced job classifications are all examples of a changing labor relations system.

Management is also undergoing substantial change. Restructuring is the new buzzword that categorizes the changing structure of corporate management. Corporations are challenging the rigid, bureaucratic, and highly centralized management structure that dominated in the postwar era, and are attempting to implement a more decentralized, leaner, and more responsive structure. In many cases, "business units" are being set up that are wholly responsible for their own success. These business units exist not only in the corporate hierarchy, but extend all the way down the ladder to the shop floor. Clearly, management also faces challenges in its need to restructure.

It is very significant that in much of manufacturing, EI is a component of a more general reconfiguration of the production process. An integral part of implementing a MBS system is the introduction of changes, such as Just-in-Time Inventory, Cell Manufacturing, and an increasingly greater reliance upon computer technology in the production process. Manufacturing is moving away from long production runs and is moving toward running small batches of production. This requires the flexibility to make changeovers quickly and efficiently. Just as important is the need to ensure a high level of quality in the goods that are produced. Increasingly, management has the need to have quality built in as opposed to having it inspected in at the end of the production process. The change in the production process appears to be an attempt to convert traditional assembly line production into a system that is similar to a continuous process flow operation.

All of these changes are occurring in the context of the end of the period when American corporations were completely dominant in the world economy and when the bulk of their production occurred in the United States. Corporations are deindustrializing in the United States, while facing competition from Asian and European based multinational corporations. Corporations have become dependent upon technology and telecommunications to manage their empires. In the midst of this, corporations are coming to workers trying to implement their model of empowering workers to make more decisions about production. Unions obviously must make some difficult yet vitally important decisions.

What are our options in EI? Some unionists argue that EI is not really a traditional union issue and that we should take no position or action. Others take the approach that the adversarial approach no longer works and that we should therefore agree to cooperate with management in implementing its EI program. Still other unionists argue that employer-dominated EI programs are a dagger pointed at the heart of the labor movement and that unions should do all they can to resist the implementation of EI programs. Finally, some unionists are beginning to approach EI not from a cooperative model but from a collective bargaining view. They believe that neither cooperating nor just saying no to EI deals with the fundamental change that is occurring in the workplace and that by viewing EI as a vehicle to expand the union’s influence into areas that have been traditionally the domain of management expands the union's power and influence and that only by the union controlling EI can workers have real empowerment.

These are difficult choices for unions to make. What is clear is that doing nothing is not working. Union membership is declining at an alarming rate. Union power, both politically and economically, is much less than it was 25 years ago. Worker participation in their unions is often nonexistent. We are facing a crisis that may lead to the end of the American labor movement. The time to act is now.

Then no of questions arises which are:

1. Prioritize (1 being best option, 4 being worst) the list of alternatives unions face when they are dealing with Employee Involvement.

1.1. Take no position

1.2. Cooperate with management's program

1.3. Resist the implementation of Employee Involvement

1.4. Develop a union-empowering model of Employee Involvement

2. Based on the option you selected in the preceding question, can the union implement its choice through the traditional service model structure

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