A trade unionist examines another role for labor

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The United States trade union movement is changing. For one thing, says Glenn E. Watts, the articulate president of the Communications Workers of America, trade unionists are becoming more interested in cooperation with management rather than confrontation.

That's a break from American labor tradition. Trade unions have usually figured that the best way to win the most benefits for their members was through confrontation across the collective bargaining table and strikes if necessary. Management was the "enemy."

Negotiations and strikes will, obviously, continue into the future. But Mr. Watts, here in Boston for the annual convention of his 625,000-member union, reckons that more areas for cooperation with management should be developed.

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For instance, his union has launched a "quality-of-work-life" program together with the management of Bell Telephone companies. It is also interested in developing "workers' councils" along the lines of those that prevail in such European nations as West Germany.

In a way, the trade union movement is modernizing. Education levels of its members have risen dramatically in the last decades. Most trade unionists belong decidedly to the middle class, many earning above average wage levels. They are not only interested in pay. They want their individuality recognized at work through better conditions, through a greater recognition by management of their possible contribution to the job.

Mr. Watts notes that only five old-timers are left on the 35-person AFL-CIO executive council since he joined it after becoming president of the CWA in 1974 . On average, he says, members of the council are younger, more in tune with their changed membership -- "more forwardlooking."

These union executives are groping for new, attractive roles for their unions at a time when the trade union movement is having a rough time. Only about one of five employees in the nation belongs to a union today. In coal mining and construction, more and more work is going to nonunion firms. The auto and steel workers are suffering from lower-wage foreign competition.

In Washington, trade union leaders see a President most of them regard as basically antagonistic. Indeed, Mr. Watts, a strong and early supporter of former President Carter, chose in his presidential address to the convention to attack "Reaganomics" as "the economics of big business applied to government."

He added: "Under the guise of trying to balance the budget, the administration is advancing a new government ideology -- an approach to government which has little room for human concerns. The aim is to run a government of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation."

Mr. Watts, talking of "welfare for the wealthy," argued that organized labor must continue to be active politically. "By bargaining in the legislative arena , organized labor has gained rights and social benefits which would have been impossible to attain in the traditional bargaining area."

But it may take activities closer to the workplace for the trade union movement to expand its membership. Trade unions must expand their utility to employees beyond the traditional collective bargaining to justify further the dues deducted from worker paychecks.

Mr. Watts regards the quality-of-work- life idea as one such useful role. Some 150 officials of the CWA were studying this idea at all-day workshops here prior to the convention. The goal is to give workers greater participation in planning their own work activities. Management expects to get higher quality work and more productivity. Workers hope for a more pleasant work life and greater satisfaction from the job.

The union and management, noted Mr. Watts, have had quality-of-work-life programs under way for as long as a year at several Bell Telephone operating affiliates, at Western Electric, and at General Telephone & Electronics. "At two or there places it has advanced enough to show results."

Mr. Watts said he was being very careful not to force program on his own officials. Some are suspicious that it might be used by management to speed up production uncomfortably or subvert union power. "We will show them some successful experiences," he said.

The United Automobile Workers Union has also been active in quality-of-work-life programs. Buick, for instance, has enjoyed a considerable boost in productivity and quality as a result.

Mr. Watts also has some interest in worker's councils, which he investigated during a trip to West Germany. These councils are elected by all the workers in a plant or shop as their representatives in dealing with management. Trade unionists can run for the council jobs along with any other worker. The councils will discuss with management a broad range of issues -- but not wages. They might seek a more pleasant lunch room, or talk about vacation scheduling, or any other question dear to the heart of the worker.

The CWA president does not yet approve of codetermination -- the West German practice of having worker representatives as members of a corporate supervisory board. Douglas Fraser, head of the UAW, became a member of troubled Chrysler's board of directors last year. Mr. Watts sees the possibility of conflicts of interest for a trade union leader taking such a position. So he does not see codetermination as the "wave of the future in the short run" in the US.

Curiously, however, he used the phrase "in the short run." The trade union movement is changing fast enough today in the US that such a cautionary phrase may be necessary.

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