Labor's changing world

Three British railwaymen felt they should not have been fired because they refused to join a union. They took their case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. They won. Though the court's ruling was a narrow one, it reverberates in a world freshly groping toward labor practices that are fair and productive -- and recognizing how closely these two qualities are linked.

The decision of the court, which represents the 21 member states of the Council of Europe, is part of a longtime self-correcting process involving unions, governments, employers, and individual employees. The bottom line is that the success of a country as well as a company depends on the hands and minds of its working men and women all across the spectrum. The emerging trend is toward achieving results by cooperation, as exemplified by Japanese, European , and increasingly American efforts to elicit the full capacities of individuals through communication, teamplay, "workplace democracy," and mutual respect.

But labor strife and struggles continue as different countries reach different points in the swings of the pendulum since bygone exploitation of labor brought the first big swing toward unionization. Before returning to Britain -- which has been a leader in the trade-union movement and may yet be a leader in transforming it -- consider what has been happening elsewhere:

* In Poland this week a printers' strike closed down the official press, an unheard of action in a Soviet bloc country. It was called by the Solidarity labor union to obtain fairer access for its views in the national news media. Think of how British unions in the past have used their power to limit others' access to the press or to keep newspapers out of the hands of the public. Think of how union employees of the Philadelphia Bulletin have just accepted pay cuts in inflationary times to keep their paper from folding.

* Earlier this summer the Soviet Union itself was advised to alter its labor laws in conformity with the International Labor Organization's convention on workers' rights. No one expects Moscow to leap to comply. But the episode was an encouraging example of the ILO's getting away from the double standard that had seemed to go easier on violations by left-wing regimes than by right-wing regimes. With Poland's workers winning international acclaim for asserting their rights, the message can hardly fail to reach Russia's workers eventually.

* In Mexico a workers' manifesto called on the government to oppose a United States plan for admitting 50,000 "guest workers" yearly. This would mean legalizing the "second-class status" of undocumented Mexican workers in the US, the manifesto said. It brought to mind a Mexican immigration official's suggestion for unionizing workers on both sides of the border. With the rise of multinational corporations, he noted, an orderly marketplace might be served by comparable multinational unions.

* In the United States all eyes are on the tough action of President Reagan in "ending" the air traffic controllers' strike by firing the strikers. Since the strikers were breaking the law against strikes by federal employees, they were not in the usual category of strikers. The question came up as to whether public service unions had any meaning without a legal right to strike for use in bargaining against all the resources of government employers.

Tremors have been felt even in the private-sector union movement. For all the "elite" image of the controllers, would the situation bring out more workers for the big Washington "solidarity" rally planned for September? The very fact that the national unions saw need for such a rally is a sign of the moving pendulum. With a certain eloquent irony, Washington has just begun honoring the contribution of past labor leaders with a federally aided art exhibition that will later go on tour.

To get back to Britain, the European Court of Human Rights specifically noted that its decision on behalf of the railwaymen did not involve a judgment on the closed shop. Nor did it mean that compulsory union membership was always contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights on which the decision was based. The point was that a threat of dismissal involving loss of livelihood in this case's particular circumstances was a violation.

The decision is being taken as a boost to efforts to get rid of the closed shop in Britain. It seems clear that it offers some protection to other workers who may not want to join a union as a matter of principle.

To look farther ahead, however, some thoughtful people in Britain are contemplating a diminished role for unions in such traditional matters as bargaining for wages. What then would be the unions' role? They would be seen as useful worker advocates in the emerging era of cooperation mentioned at the beginning. They would be seeking "quality of worklife." They would be joining in efforts to bring out the best on all sides. As the pendulum swings, such are some of the tendencies to be supported to establish a productive equilibrium.

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