A New Role for Unions?

A MANAGEMENT tool used by 80 percent of the 1,000 largest companies in America is being threatened by a movement representing only 12 percent of private-sector workers.

A dozen times since 1992, the National Labor Relations Board has held that ''employee involvement'' (EI) teams, also known by other names such as ''quality circles,'' are ''labor organizations,'' and thus represent an infringement of unions' collective bargaining rights under the Wagner Act.

Quality circles, in other words, have been held to be ''company unions.'' You may have to reach back to your history book to remember that term: It referred to a sham union controlled by management and installed to thwart independent unions' organizing.

Management organizations, like the Labor Policy Association (LPA) in Washington, are crying foul. They see EI teams -- in which labor and management work cooperatively rather than adversarially on problems ranging from production schedules to design challenges to decisions on where to hold the company picnic -- as an essential tool for ensuring their companies' success in the global marketplace. ''The union leadership wants to make union membership the price of EI,'' as an LPA representative puts it. But only about 12 percent of the American private-sector work force wears the union label.

A critical case here is that of Electromation, an electronic partsmaker in Elkhart, Ind. In December 1992, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the firm's employee-management committees improperly got into pay scales and work rules rather than confining themselves to questions of product quality or efficiency of production.

The decision was hailed by Teamsters President Ron Carey as a victory for labor: ''We already have a way to establish healthy relationships between workers and management. It's called collective bargaining.''

But the ruling was disappointingly narrow and failed to provide much clarification of what EI teams can and cannot do.

And so moderate Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation (the Team Act -- Teamwork for Employees and Management) to amend the Wagner Act to clarify the EI issue. Proponents acknowledge that EI teams often do get into matters that, in a union setting, are properly the province of collective bargaining and need to be referred for negotiating once they have come up in an EI team discussion.

Labor advocates are not sure the motives of employers' groups are so pure here: They do see an attempted end-run around unions. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, for instance, opposes the Team Act; and although Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been a staunch advocate of EI teams and has urged legislation to address the ''company union'' question, President Clinton has reportedly promised union leaders to oppose the Team Act.

However this issue sorts out, it's hard to see much future in the traditional adversarial paradigm for labor-management relations. A number of unions are looking for new ways to relate with management, and a short list of success stories is frequently mentioned: The Communications Workers of America in their work with AT&T; the auto workers with General Motors' Saturn division; Xerox and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers.

Not every worker wants to take quasi-managerial responsibility, however, and Martin Perline, a professor of economics at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan., counsels anyone considering the EI issue to give thought to how much in the way of managerial prerogatives employers really want to give up in quality circles.

Still, Professor Perline notes, the future lies in more cooperation between unions and management: ''Their joint interest is in making the pie as big as they can.''

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