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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET: WORKING INTO THE NEXT CENTURY : MID-CAREER CRUNCH : WORK DEMOCRACY : Shortage of Room at the Top Makes Employee Input, Involvement More Important Than Ever Before

May 15, 1988|HARRY BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

There never has been enough room at the top for all of our educated, ambitious, talented young people, or at least those who think they belong there.

But workplace democracy--efforts to give workers more say in decisions affecting their jobs--is emerging as an important route toward the top for the millions of increasingly well-educated young Americans who may scorn jobs they believe fail to utilize their full potential.

It's happening in the auto industry, it's happening in schools, it's happening in factories big and small. And it's getting careful attention these days.

Many experts in government, business, academia and unions believe that sharing the power to make major and minor decisions at work can greatly ease the strain caused by the growing number of young people who are able to handle supervisorial jobs without a corresponding increase in the number of such jobs.

Alfred Warren, General Motors' vice president of labor relations, says the new relationships being developed between workers and managers "have the potential of revolutionizing the way we work everywhere, not just at GM."

And GM Chairman Roger Smith says the "very survival" of GM depends on the success of the new system that gives workers "a meaningful voice in company management."

As the ranks of college graduates swell, there is the prospect that there will be a vast increase in the numbers of those frustrated would-be supervisors and company executives.

A question being widely debated is whether young people are being "overeducated." That was the topic of a major UCLA conference May 6, sponsored by the school's Institute of Industrial Relations.

Obviously, education is in itself a valuable goal, regardless of the job and income that education helps to obtain. And society may never find a way to fully satisfy all of those who want to be bosses instead of employees. But shared decision-making is seen as a way to at least partly satisfy those workers.

The idea of employees sharing decision-making authority with management isn't new, of course, but it is spreading rapidly these days. It is happening partly because corporations are seeking ways to become more competitive, and because governments at all levels, under tight budget restraints, are exploring ways to cut costs and perform more efficiently.

But perhaps most important of all in the spread of workplace democracy is, according to experts in employee relations, a growing consensus that young and old alike, at almost all levels of education, want to be treated as adult decision makers, not just order takers.

The federal government has several major programs designed to encourage on-the-job democracy, primarily through the Department of Labor and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Full-time staffs at several private, nonprofit organizations such as the Work in America Institute, based in Scarsdale, N.Y., make extensive studies and hold conferences around the country to stimulate interest in the concept.

The best way to understand it, though, is to see or read about the thousands of functioning examples of the new way of working. All of them incorporate some element of workplace democracy, although none include a system that makes all jobs equally ego-gratifying, important and comparably paid.

But advocates of workplace democracy say in many ways it is an effective way to confront the problem of making more room at least closer to the top.

The largest number of jobs affected by the new system are in factories and large offices that often offer low-ranking jobs. These are usually the least attractive to bright young men and women who would probably prefer--and think they can fill--supervisorial or executive jobs.

But if those jobs at or near the top are not available, then workplace democracy is an alternative that can ease the disappointment.

A worker participation system planned jointly by General Motors and leaders and members of the United Auto Workers is an example worth examining because it includes most of the interesting elements of all such systems.

The project is located near Nashville, Tenn., where construction has started on a new GM facility that will be used to build a new car model, the Saturn, which is scheduled to go into production in early 1990.

Worker participation in Saturn management decisions began in 1982, long before any serious decisions were made. Some GM executives thought of the idea and called on the UAW, which represents most of its workers, to help devise what they said should be "the most imaginative plan possible."

That core group of top GM and UAW officials selected 35 plant managers, supervisors, personnel directors and other corporate representatives and 64 worker representatives, including rank-and-filers and union staffers.

They were told to "throw away the past," ignore all previous company and union policies and practices and find a way to make employees part of the decision-making process at every level.

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