WASHINGTON — In a Republican victory destined for reversal by presidential veto, the Senate passed legislation Wednesday to curtail the power of organized labor by permitting companies to create worker-management teams to discuss workplace issues outside of union settings.
Organized labor believes that the legislation, which gives legal status to an already widespread practice, would make it far more difficult to persuade employees to vote for union representation.
The 53-46 margin of victory was 14 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to overturn President Clinton's promised veto.
That veto would end, at least for this Congress, Republican plans to clip the wings of organized labor by reducing union control and turning around six decades of labor law.
"When this Congress was first elected, we thought the Republicans would be very powerful and push through a lot of [anti-union] legislation," said Peggy Taylor, the AFL-CIO's legislative director in Washington. "But the fact is they have accomplished almost nothing. We have sustained no significant harm and do not expect to between now and the end of the year."
Known as the Teamwork for Employees and Management (TEAM) Act, the Senate bill allows selected workers and managers to discuss wages, hours and working conditions in a nonunion setting, a practice now illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. The House passed similar legislation last year.
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican and the bill's sponsor, knew that the measure was likely to attract a veto but pushed for the vote anyway. The action puts the Senate on record in favor of employee-involvement programs that backers say are already widely practiced by tens of thousands of companies across the United States, even though they are technically illegal.
"I believe strongly that workers have important contributions to make to improve the quality of their work life and the quality of the product or service their company delivers," Kassebaum said. "Today's vote recognizes the importance of harnessing worker ideas and putting them to good use."
But opponents, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), argued that the measure would allow employers to hand-pick worker representatives and dominate negotiations, leading to so-called sham unions.
"This legislation has nothing to do with cooperation and everything to do with undermining workers' rights," Kennedy said. "It overturns one of the fundamental protections of American law: that employers cannot set up company-dominated unions as a trick to prevent workers from joining real unions."
While it is estimated that 9 of 10 large companies use some sort of team approach, sometimes in the form of so-called quality circles, labor experts say that the practice is in effect in businesses of all sizes. Statistics are virtually impossible to come by, however, since few businesses will attest to using a team approach that violates labor law. Christopher Cameron, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law who specializes in labor and employment, noted that a commission set up by Clinton estimated that more than 30,000 U.S. workplaces practice some form of team management, including Xerox Corp. and Polaroid Corp.
The team management idea stems from the post-World War II thinking of W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician and management theorist credited with transforming postwar Japan.
"Deming believed, if you want to know why things happen on the shop floor, ask the guys on the shop floor," said Bruce Josten, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
His ideas were all but ignored in the United States, where Depression-era laws and subsequent court rulings made it illegal for employee-management teams in nonunion businesses to discuss such issues as scheduling, work assignments, health and safety matters, and work rules.
But the approach has exploded in the last decade as management consultants pushed the idea of team-based organizations.
At the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., auto plant in Fremont, Calif., workers and managers cooperate under the team concept only on production lines. At the Saturn operation of General Motors Corp. in Spring Hill, Tenn., teams extend their reach to design, strategy and many other issues.