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Union-Bashing Is a Bad Habit That Smart Executives Quit

November 24, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Listening to company and union leaders talk about the wondrous effects of labor-management cooperation at Dayton (Ohio) Power & Light Co. makes it hard to understand why other companies and unions aren't trying to end their own long-standing adversarial relationships.

But the truth is that the vast majority of companies in America are clinging firmly to the old ways, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to oust, keep out or beat down unions in contract negotiations.

Harvard Prof. John T. Dunlop, an internationally respected authority in labor relations, says labor-management cooperation comes most often when a company is being hurt economically and needs the help of its employees.

Few company executives are willing to give up any of their authority or furnish the corporate information that workers must have to engage in a participatory management system, Dunlop maintains.

While he is pleased to see some new examples of labor-management cooperation, Dunlop "has no illusions" about its extent and says it hasn't become much more prevalent today than it was in the early 1900s.

"There has been no massive shift in the methods of management, no wide adoption of worker participation in management, nor any diminution of management hostility to labor organizations," he says.

Dunlop warned a friend who is a strong advocate of labor-management cooperation: "Don't get carried away by the enthusiasts. Managers around the country haven't suddenly become a flock of lambs ready to be friendly. Most of what the enthusiasts say about new trends is just bull."

However, despite Dunlop's pessimism and the militant anti-unionism of most American corporations, there is strong evidence that there is a small but steady and significant increase in worker participation programs and more harmonious labor-management relations.

The argument for the more enlightened system is simple: It makes sense for companies and workers.

As Carl R. Morey, vice president of Dayton Power & Light, succinctly observes: "It is past time to stop our long-standing practice of beating up on each other."

Nearly two years ago, the AFL-CIO Utility Workers of America Local 175 and DP&L tore up a 140-page book of rules governing every minute aspect of work by the 1,800 union members.

The company and union jointly developed a brief "compact" that replaced the massive, old union contract.

The compact gives workers a "bill of rights" that adds unprecedented job security and workplace safety. It established a non-adversarial partnership based on what union and company officials say is "true mutual respect."

There are no company financial secrets kept from the union or its members.

Everything from worker grievances to company policies and practices is jointly resolved or, if that fails, disputed questions are submitted to one of the nation's most respected mediators, Wayne Horvitz.

Horvitz, former director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, is permanent umpire for the compact. He decides unresolved questions through arbitration, if he cannot get them settled first through mediation.

Other factors helped, but the compact is largely credited with the almost complete elimination of worker grievances in less than two years, a 36% productivity increase that resulted in pay hikes for workers, four reductions in electricity costs to customers and a significant improvement in customer service.

The Ohio utility isn't the only example of what can be done when harmony prevails between workers and managers.

Worldwide attention has been focused on the substantial gains made when labor and management began cooperating closely at the Toyota-General Motors joint venture auto plant in Fremont, Calif., at the Ford plant in Sharonville, Ohio, and other companies.

Statistics are hard to come by, but Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Thomas A. Kochan says one study showed that a full 20% of the work force is employed at companies that either have or are trying to develop at least some minimal form of worker participation program.

Kochan notes that worker participation programs are essential to the nation's long-range economic future and that they should be integrated into a national labor policy and given substantial encouragement by the government.

Kochan, like most other experts on the topic of labor-mangement cooperation, argues that such programs work best when a union is involved in helping to, as he puts it, "keep management honest." In other words, when there is no union to help individual workers resist the power of management, management usually reverts to its old ways and makes all the decisions.

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