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Workplace Totalitarianism Takes a Hit : Labor drops its opposition to democratic partnerships between workers and management.

March 13, 1994|HARRY BERNSTEIN | Harry Bernstein was for many years The Times' labor writer.

It will be more difficult to end workplace totalitarianism in America than to democratize Iraq with Saddam Hussein in charge, yet there is a sudden growth of interest in trying to create industrial democracy in this country.

At last, this country's union leaders have ended their often heated arguments and wisely agreed to call for a radical shift to industrial democracy.

Unions have always been one major obstacle to forming partnerships between labor and management and minimizing if not eliminating their long-standing tradition of often harsh, costly adversarial relationships.

The blame for refusing to accept a system that works well in so many other countries now lies entirely on corporate leaders who still refuse to share any of their extensive powers with workers.

The shift in labor's attitude was long in coming. Many union leaders feared management would use the concept of close labor-management cooperation as yet another weapon to destroy their organizations by arguing that unions would no longer be needed when workers had a voice in management.

But as union ranks diminished under the onslaught of anti-labor legislation and intensified fights with management, the time had come for change. The AFL-CIO executive council unanimously agreed, at a meeting in Bal Harbour, Fla., last month, to a revolutionary policy calling for an alteration "in the most basic ways the manner in which work is organized, businesses are managed and labor and management treat each other."

The concept of sharing decision-making power between management and workers has long been common in all other major industrial powers. Power in those countries is rarely shared equally, but workers and their union representatives are involved directly in almost every daily decision from the corporate boardroom to the office and shop floor.

With encouragement from the government, some enlightened managers and a few unions, the idea of cooperation and workplace democracy began to spread here slowly, but has had little impact--to-day, only about 5% of U.S. corporations actually practice democracy on the job.

Thomas Donahue, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and chair of the AFL-CIO committee that now is urgently calling for close labor-management cooperation, denounced the idea 15 years ago. He said then, "We do not want to blur in any way the distinctions between the respective roles of management and labor."

He was joined by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, who concluded in a prologue to a book on the subject by myself and Joanne Bernstein: "I believe that most American trade unionists who study the matter will remain convinced that the potential of our system of arms-length collective bargaining is so far from exhaustion as to make a detour into routes carved by other tighter little societies an inexpedient diversion."

But Kirkland did add that "one should keep an open mind."

Not only has labor changed its collective view, but the Clinton Administration is pushing it hard in the federal government and touting it for all. Labor Secretary Robert Reich is particularly enthusiastic, and the AFL-CIO wants the government to provide the legal framework for labor-management partnership agreements.

Such partnerships must be among equals, however, and therefore workers need a union to give them some equality with management. The alternative is a sham industrial-democracy system created to avoid unions and easily eliminated by an order from management.

Even with labor and Clinton Administration support, though, industrial democracy isn't going far unless management accepts the idea of cooperation with workers and their unions.

Remember, the most virulent opposition to the idea comes from corporate executives who would have to share their often profitable powers with workers and from mid-level managers who stand to lose the ego-satisfying control they now have over underlings. But as world economic competition continues to increase, workplace totalitarianism will surely prove to be not just ruthless but as inefficient as political totalitarianism.

Management must wake up to the fact that true labor-management cooperation is far better for companies and workers than the customary fights they've had under the old-fashioned system of strictly adversarial collective bargaining.

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