CALLING for historic reform in the United States workplace, a presidential panel yesterday proposed ways to reverse the long adversarial tradition in labor relations.
It also recommended new laws making it easier for workers to organize unions.
The Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations urges the Clinton administration to update antiquated labor laws and promote a cooperative spirit in industrial relations. Such reforms would create a fairer, more productive workplace, it says.
The panel, consisting of scholars, executives, former secretaries of the departments of labor and commerce, and other experts, calls on the government to help solve labor disputes prior to litigation and remove legal barriers to cooperative ``participation programs'' that aim to bring management and workers together in solving US company problems. It also advocates efforts to simplify federal regulations that inhibit swift resolution of labor disputes.
``The workplaces that we have inherited are far too adversarial in tone and substance for the good of the American economy,'' the report states.
``An increasing number of employers and unions have found that the best way to compete in the marketplace and secure both profits for the firm and good jobs for workers is through cooperative worker-management relations,'' the commission says. The panel, established in May 1993, is chaired by former Labor Secretary John Dunlop.
The Dunlop commission details the shortcomings in industrial relations and the goals for reform, but it leaves to the government the question of how to reach the most important goals.
Most notably, the commission only vaguely suggests how to reduce potentially explosive inequalities in income among working Americans. Moreover, it does not recommend ways to curtail the severe decline in membership of unions, which some consider vital for ensuring fair wages and decent treatment for workers.
``The Dunlop Commission gave up on trying to revive unionism. That was their initial goal and that was what [Secretary] Reich appointed [it] for,'' says Leo Troy, a professor of economics at
Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
Still, the commission seeks to bring labor practices and laws in line with several sweeping changes in the US economy and workplace in recent decades:
* There has been unprecedented growth in the employment of part-time, temporary, and other contingent workers.
``Some contingent work arrangements relegate workers to a second-class status of low wages, inadequate fringe benefits, lack of training, and, most importantly, loss of protection of labor and employment laws and standards,'' the commission says.
It calls on the government to remold existing laws to ensure adequate safeguards for contingent workers.
* Between 1971 and 1991, the number of employment suits over such matters as discrimination, safety, and breach of contract in federal courts skyrocketed 430 percent. The commission urges federal agencies to encourage workers and management to settle labor disputes internally.
* The proportion of private-sector workers who are unionized has steadily declined to only 11 percent, the lowest figure in more than 60 years.
The commission calls on the administration to uphold the rights of workers to organize and strengthen efforts to prevent management from thwarting unionization. It recommends, for instance, that the National Labor Relations Board speed up the time it takes for employees to form a union. It also called for laws requiring the board to obtain fast injunctions to stop discrimination by employers against union members.
* Both unionized and nonunionized workers have increasingly joined management in ``participation programs,'' which pursue myriad aims, from streamlining production, to training, to promoting safety and health in the workplace.
The panel urged the government to clear away legal obstacles to participation programs in the National Labor Relations Act, the law governing management-labor relations, while sustaining prohibitions against the rebirth of company unions.
This prompted opposition on the panel.
``Employer-dominated representation is undemocratic regardless of the particular subjects with which the employer-controlled representative deals,'' Douglas Fraser, a commission member and former president of the United Auto Workers union, wrote in a dissenting opinion.
* The rates of injury and illness on the job have persisted at high levels in the past decade. Although fatal accidents have declined, the number of work days lost per full-time employee because of occupational injury or illness has risen.
Threats to health and safety pose increasing costs to companies, workers, and the economy, the commission says. It calls for employee-participation programs in each workplace devoted to health and safety.