Washington — A positive force seems to be taking shape in US labor as companies and labor unions look at ways to increase cooperation. ``I see cooperation coming,'' says Greg Govan, the labor-relations manager of a large California construction company. ``We have to have it.''
``Maybe we just try harder to get along,'' says Bobby Skelton, shop chairman of a United Automobile Workers local in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
At a labor-management conference here this week, Mr. Skelton, his plant manager, and a business professor at the University of Alabama talked about how their joint efforts saved the plant from being closed in 1983. Other examples at the conference ranged from work reorganization at the unionized Shell Canada Ltd. to New York's quality-of-work-life program for state employees.
Though the push for cooperation goes beyond union facilities, labor observers are paying particular attention to union-management relations. The current upheaval in the workplace is causing increased rancor as well as cooperation, these observers add, and it remains to be seen how far-reaching the push for cooperation will become.
``I believe we're in a time or era where we've come a long way,'' says James Roemer Jr., labor attorney for a New York union of government workers involved in quality-of-work-life initiatives. But, he adds, ``If there were a changing of the guard at the top, meaning a different governor who had a different labor philosophy . . . that could change things dramatically.''
The ultimate outcome depends largely on whether workers and managers can redefine their own concepts of power and dignity in the workplace, several labor experts add.
A dramatic change in workplace attitudes in the United States took place a century ago, says labor historian Stuart Kaufman of the University of Maryland. As the nation embraced mass production, the ideal that hard work guaranteed success began to fade for factory workers. The fledging labor movement offered workers another possibility: They could achieve power and dignity by using the union to stand up to the company. As this concept took hold, the labor movement grew as did the rancor between tough employers and tough unions, Mr. Kaufman adds.
``The American model . . . is cowboys and Indians, good guys-bad guys,'' says Roger Fisher, director of the negotiation project at the Harvard University Law School. ``We think that somehow physical power -- the power to physically strike, the power to shut down the plant -- that that ought to cause the other side to give in.''
Now, this concept shows signs of changing as new forms of competition force unions and managers to look for solutions, he says. ``I think a problem-solving form of negotiation is catching on.''
Mr. Fisher and other conference speakers foresee a gradual shift toward labor-management cooperation.
``It requires a new kind of manager,'' says Alcoa president C. F. Fetterolf, who says he derives satisfaction from his workers' achievements rather than the exercise of power over them. Alcoa's success in employee-involvement programs has been mixed, he adds. Still, Mr. Fetterolf says, ``there is no question that my company is going to continue down this path'' of employee involvement.