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Levi, Union Enter Into Unusual Accord : Workplace: Labor officials will have more freedom to organize in exchange for helping to develop cost-saving rules.

October 14, 1994|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Levi Strauss & Co. and its main union announced an unconventional plan Thursday under which the company will give labor officials greater freedom to organize workers in exchange for the union pledging to work with management to develop cost-saving work rules.

The pact between the nation's biggest apparel manufacturer and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union is modeled on a program that has been running for about three years at Levi's plant in Harlingen, Tex. At the Texas factory, workers have accepted a pay plan that has cut wages in some cases but has also given employees a stronger voice in the plant's management.

The Levi-ACTWU agreement, in calling for greater labor-management cooperation, embraces workplace policies encouraged by the Clinton Administration. But it was also greeted with some skepticism in the business community.

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Moreover, the difficulty in crafting and maintaining a cooperative labor-management pact was evident Thursday when union and company sources differed somewhat on the specifics.

Under the agreement, a company spokesman said the union will be able to enter non-unionized plants to recruit new members--but only with the approval of a joint labor-management steering committee.

Other activities, such as business planning and budgeting, will also be guided by representatives of labor and management.

But a union spokeswoman, Jo-Ann Mort, emphasized that the so-called landmark partnership agreement would give labor organizers a free hand to enter non-union facilities. She portrayed the policy as being in sharp contrast to those at many other companies, where organizers solicit new members outside the plant gates.

San Francisco-based Levi Strauss employs 22,000 production and warehouse workers at 37 facilities in the United States--mainly in southern and western states that have traditionally been unfriendly to unions. Only 44% of those employees belong to unions, and only 17 of the locations are represented by organized labor.

In addition, Mort said, new union recruits at Levi Strauss will only need to sign authorization cards to join--the company will not insist on National Labor Relations Board-supervised elections.

That kind of receptiveness to union organizing "is almost unheard of at other U.S. corporations," Mort said. She said that as recently as five years ago, Levi Strauss "was not that different from other companies."

"The union was the union, the management was the management, and it was adversarial," Mort said.

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Company officials said such labor relations are a thing of the past. "An adversarial relationship won't work in a rapidly changing marketplace that demands flexibility and innovation," Bob Rockey, president of the company's Levi Strauss North America division, said in a news release.

"We wanted to forge a partnership that will add value to our business and enhance employment security by continuously improving our operations," he said.

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