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Why Unions Resist Calls for 'Cooperation'

December 08, 1985|James O'Toole | James O'Toole is editor of New Management magazine at the USC School of Business and author of "Vanguard Management" (Doubleday, 1985).

The loaded word in labor-management relations these days is "cooperation." How better to beat the Japanese, to maintain a competitive and fully employed economy, to promote industry-wide vitality and firm productivity than for those on both sides of the negotiating table to band together for the common good? After all, who could favor self-defeating conflict over mutually beneficial cooperation?

While nobody actually speaks in favor of conflict, the prolonged Southern California supermarket strike by Teamsters and meat cutters is a practical demonstration of why labor-management cooperation is much easier to advocate than achieve. The underlying reason the supermarket strike has been so slow to settle is found at the heart of almost all current labor-management impasses, from the beleaguered steel industry to the booming services sector. In a word, the barrier to cooperation is mistrust .

America's unions--staggered by a decade of social, political, economic and technological battering--are struggling to revitalize themselves. As they dance around trying to clear their heads, they fear that their managerial adversaries seek nothing less than to deliver a knockout blow. Unions are thus in no mood to accept management's call for cooperation; they suspect this is a mere ploy to sucker them into lowering their guard so management can pound them into extinction.

In effect, from the union perspective, the real question on the bargaining table is one of survival. William Winpisinger, redoubtable leader of the International Assn. of Machinists, expresses this fact in language that resonates with every trade unionist today, machinist or meat cutter: "Cooperation is a two-way street. If management wants our cooperation in the workplace, then why does it so often plot our demise in the board room and stab us in the back in the political economy?"

Part of the problem, of course, is the mutual antagonism between the current resident of the White House and the leaders of the AFL-CIO. But the unions' problems go beyond Ronald Reagan. Winpisinger and his peers have taken a brutal beating--from left and right--for over a decade. One painful concession has followed another: wage and benefit givebacks, two-tier wage structures that divide new from old members, out-contracting to non-union sources and the eclipse of industry-wide bargaining (and with it, union leverage).

And that's only part of it. Through decertification and the failure to mount successful new organizing drives, the union portion of the total work force is down some 50% from its peak. That decline has been accompanied by a concomitant loss of political clout and a highly negative public image.

Unionists now ask: Given these myriad troubles, why does management then insist on rubbing more salt in open sores? For example, two years ago General Motors won significant wage concessions from the United Auto Workers. Did GM's managers respond by making it easier for the leaders of the UAW to sell the painful give-backs to the union's rank and file? No. Instead, the executives voted enormous bonuses for themselves, making the union leaders look like chumps in the eyes of their members.

On another occasion, GM succeeded in gaining the UAW's cooperation in increasing productivity, only to return the favor by attempting to establish a non-union plant in the Sun Belt (refusal to recognize an existing union as bargaining agent in new facilities is, not coincidentally, also a key "survival" issue in the current supermarket negotiations).

Hence, from the union point of view, cooperation is a masochistic, if not suicidal, act. Labor leaders ask why they should cooperate with managers who refuse to accept the legitimacy of unions, who refuse to recognize the right of existence of the very organizations from which they seek concessions. Even Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers (and the AFL-CIO's voice of moderation) has been reduced to asking: "When employers talk about union cooperation, do they actually mean union surrender?"

That's the union perspective. Neutral observers suggest that many of labor's wounds are self-inflicted. Unions have been slow to embrace such pro-worker ideas as employee participation in decision-making and in stock ownership, slow to respond to the special needs of women and minorities and insensitive to the values of younger workers. Moreover, union rigidity--on work rules, wage and job classification, seniority and the use of part-timers--has frequently undercut the flexibility employers need to respond to competitive challenges--leading, ironically, to the disappearance of tens of thousands of union jobs.

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