When workers take over a steel plant

One can only imagine the relief and cautious optimism that must now be echoing through the small communities around Weirton, West Virginia. In agreeing to purchase the huge Weirton plant of the National Steel Corporation for $66 million, the employees of the plant are putting together what will become the largest worker-owned industrial facility in the United States. Is this the wave of the future? Perhaps not, but it is a significant development as the United States struggles with declining industries and seeks to maintain its competitive position.

New paths are being tried. The Weirton workers are not only prepared to participate in the management of their firm and industry (in this case, saving their plant by actually buying and operating it), but to make the sacrifices in wages and work conditions that will enable the company to remain productive in an industry hard-pressed by competition from abroad. Nor is the changing attitude of the Weirton work force unique. Earlier this month the United Steelworkers and seven large steel firms agreed on a new contract reducing wages and paid time-off to help the industry. And, even more recently, at the reopened Framingham General Motors plant in Massachusetts - closed since last October - recalled employees said they would work harder than ever to ensure that their products are made as well and efficiently as possible.

These cases all differ. Yet, taken together, they suggest that American workers and management can put aside confrontation, and cooperate to challenge the complacency, drift, and disregard for excellence which have contributed to America's slippage in manufacturing and industrial leadership in the past several decades. At the Weirton plant, for example, if the employees vote to ratify the plan, they will be taking a pay cut of 32 percent or more. Such a stark reduction is considered necessary to ensure that the facility remains competitive. In the case of the United Steelworkers contract, workers will be temporarily reducing basic and incentive pay by $1.25 an hour, and, for many workers, scuttling an extended-vacation plan.

Perhaps many of the visionaries and founders of the modern American industrial state would recognize what is going on here. Take Henry Ford, for example, who, despite all his difficulties with labor in the final days of his career, still had such a remarkable grasp of the productive process. ''I think, '' he said, that ''if men are unhampered and they know that they are serving, they will always put all of mind and will into even the most trivial of events.'' And that sense of larger service, of meaningfully participating in the task at hand, could always be improved upon, in the Ford view of manufacturing. The ''fixed rule'' at Ford, back in those early days of mass production, was that no job is ever being done ''well enough.''

It will be interesting to watch what happens when workers feel they have a direct stake in their enterprise.

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