Automation turns job security into major union battle cry

When the telephone workers went on strike last month, the public was pleasantly surprised. The system went on well without them. One could call friends or business contacts without much problem.

What pleased the public, however, worries many workers. Will they lose their jobs to automation? How can they prepare for new jobs?

Job security and retraining thus became big issues in the recent contract settlement between American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA). They are also big issues for industrial workers, who have watched shrinking markets and competition hack away at the labor force.

And they are even becoming an issue with white-collar workers. When they get laid off in a recession, they don't have recalls to look forward to, says Hervey Juris, professor of human resources management at Northwestern University's J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

Job security wasn't always such a big deal, the professor says. ''From 1963 to the mid-'70s it was not an issue at all. Turnover was the big problem. It was impossible to discipline the work force (in areas like absenteeism). If you got too hard, workers would go to your competitors,'' he says.

What's changed all that is an adjusting world economy - an economy trying to deal with smaller markets and new technology. The change will ''carry to the end of the decade,'' the professor says. ''Job security (issues) will last longer than other personnel fads.''

There were a few significant new gains made in the CWA contract, says Audrey Freedman, chief labor economist for the Conference Board in New York. She points out that employees with little seniority who choose to leave because of job obsolescence will get reimbursed (up to $2,500) for retraining, relocation, or outplacement expenses incurred while trying to a new job - any kind of job. And workers with more seniority who leave because of job obsolescence will get a four-year supplemental income to combine with pension or termination pay.

''That income will not be hinged on unemployment compensation'' as it is in many cases, Mrs. Freedman explains. That's good, she says, because unemployment-compensation policies are not always stable.

Other labor experts like the fact that CWA workers forced to take lower-level jobs because technology has taken over jobs they once did, or because of the upcoming phone-company breakup, will not have to take a pay cut for three years. And labor leaders applaud the $36 million general training program AT&T will finance for workers affected by automation or who just want to further their careers. The training will be after working hours.

But Russell Allen, deputy director of the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, says the CWA excitement over training gains is ''just a little puffery that goes along with the general euphoria of getting a contract. The real breakthrough (came) in autos.''

In their discussions with Ford and General Motors last year, the United Auto Workers union negotiated a training fund, ''something we've never had,'' says Sheldon Friedman, research director for the UAW. The union won advance notice of new technologies so that their impact and what to do about it can be discussed. And the companies agreed not to close US plants because of outsourcing (shifting work to plants where labor is cheaper).

There have also been attempts to provide lifetime-employment guarantees at a number of auto plants. The guarantees cover the life of the contract, not the life of the worker. But for various reasons this has only been achieved at one plant.

Because the CWA got both pay increases and some of these unique training provisions, some labor experts view it as the best labor contract to come along in a long time. ''It's a landmark,'' says Rex Hardesty, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. ''But I would hesitate to draw any national trends from it. Not everyone has the luxury of dealing with the world's largest company.''

AT&T has two things going for it that many smokestack industries don't: strong finances and a growing business. For these reasons, it will be difficult for many heavy-industry unions to make further, major gains in job security and training.

''In industries like auto and steel, no matter how much of an economic rebound there'll be, there will never be as many jobs,'' says Richard Valliere, an editor at the Daily Labor Report. ''What are you training for? In telephones, there probably won't be much increase or decrease in the total number of jobs, (just) a change in the types of jobs. There is no boom-bust cycle (at AT&T) like there is in autos and steel.''

So what kind of progress will be made on the job-security front in industries that are not experiencing the kind of growth found in telecommunications?

Mrs. Freedman says management will continue to address the issue, ''not through job security, but through income security. In US companies, over the decades, unions appeal for job security and the company responds in terms of pay. Companies want to keep payrolls a variable cost, not a constant cost.''

She also says that ''in order to provide job security, you have to have tremendous flexibility'' to reassign people when their jobs become obsolete. That includes wage flexibility. Yet unions have built up inflexible job descriptions. And they've done this for a good reason - so they can have something definite to bargain with and about, Mrs. Freedman explains. The flexibility-inflexibility issue will be a tough one to change, she says.

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