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Tonic for Aching U.S. Labor Relations?

March 21, 1994

The relationship between U.S. employers and employees is in the middle of a historic shift whose outcome is far from revealed. The labor market certainties of the booming 1950s and '60s have been replaced with ambivalent and unforeseen labor force developments, such as those that President Clinton and leaders of the other major industrial nations tried to puzzle out at their jobs summit in Detroit last week.

In the United States seemingly permanent changes include leaner work forces. People with the right skills can pick and choose, but it's tough to say what such skills will be a decade from now. Many companies with smaller managements need workers to take more responsibility, but workers who don't trust management are loath to take on that kind of accountability. Manufacturers need employee concessions to stay competitive, but no one wants to give up a nickel without some guarantee that his or her job won't be moved away. Union membership in the private sector has declined from a high of 45% in the 1950s to about 12% now, and no proven model for labor relations has emerged to stabilize the situation.

The logical referee in these difficult times is the National Labor Relations Board, whose task is to enforce fairness in labor-management relations. Labor had little good to say about the NLRB during the Bush and Reagan years. Unionists dated their reversal of fortune to the day President Ronald Reagan ordered the replacement of striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Later, said labor leaders, firings of union activists went unpunished by the NLRB and companies were allowed to endlessly dispute union elections. To his credit, President George Bush named three relative moderates to the five-member NLRB board, appointments that started the pendulum in the other direction.

The NLRB was paralyzed for several months, without a leader, while President Clinton's nomination of William B. Gould IV as chairman was stalled short of confirmation. Gould has stated his belief in unions, and although he has worked for management some business interests have bitterly opposed him.

Now, finally, this experienced labor lawyer has been sworn in, the first African American to head the NLRB. He has said that his chief job will be "fostering a more cooperative relationship between labor and management." The harsh words spoken on both sides in his confirmation battle will have to be forgotten first.

The old contentiousness between big unions and big companies surely wasn't the best model, but neither are fear and instability among workers. A revived NLRB could help define a new relationship, which needn't be lovingly hand in hand, but how about civil and equal?

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