America’s top union leaders are heatedly debating several new ideas, one of which could fundamentally change relations between workers and their employers across the nation.
The most innovative proposal calls for federal or state legislation to require employees in almost all companies to elect members of “Worker Representation Committees.” If adopted, it would mean that, for the first time, millions of workers would have a formal, if limited, voice in the way their jobs are performed.
Union members do have something--often plenty--to say about the way they are treated on the job, but only 16.8% of America’s work force is now represented by unions, down from 35.5% in 1945.
Some companies have voluntarily created their own committees of workers to get advice and suggestions. But most companies still are authoritarian, with the bosses making all decisions.
The proposed committees would not function as unions. Also, they would be far more limited in their functions than the well-established “works’ councils” so common in Europe.
In the United States, the committees would allow workers to get their views to management on issues ranging from job scheduling and improved productivity to health and safety needs, something most workers do rarely and only when invited by management.
It clearly would be sensible for workers themselves to help enforce health and safety laws that now are so ineffectively enforced by government. Many companies already have worker safety committees, but most do not. And where they exist, they have little authority to take corrective action.
The committees would not be a substitute for unions because they would not be empowered by law to negotiate wages and benefits, a basic function of unions since their inception. But the committees would give those who are not union members an understanding of the functions of unions and thus help labor organizing.
Even so, arguments over the idea have raged for months in labor circles, particularly at several closed-door conferences called by the AFL-CIO Committee on the Evolution of Work headed by Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the 14.5-million-member federation.
Labor experts, including Harvard Prof. Paul Weiler and former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, gave extensive advice on how best to pursue the proposal.
Donahue is its most enthusiastic backer, saying the committees could benefit all workers, increase the nation’s productivity and indirectly help improve the deteriorating strength of organized labor.
The Workers Representation Committee plan and other proposals were expected to be ready for adoption last week by the 35-member AFL-CIO executive council at its annual meeting in Bal Harbour, Fla., until they ran into some furious opposition.
Getting legislation creating the committees won’t be easy under any circumstances, and it will be impossible if unions are not united behind the idea.
So while there was strong support within the labor federation leadership for the innovative idea, Donahue and his allies realized they need near-unanimity on it within labor to have even a chance of getting it adopted by Congress or some state legislatures. As a result, AFL-CIO action was delayed to allow more time to seek a consensus.
However, not only was there no unanimity; some of the participants in the union debates angrily shouted their opposing views at times.
Opponents vehemently maintained that the proposed Worker Representation Committees would be used by management as tools to fight legitimate union organizing campaigns.
Other opponents complained that the idea would never fly, so why waste energy on it.
But logic is on the side of the proponents. Exciting new ideas are essential if unions are to again become the vital force they once were in this nation.
The committees alone obviously will not achieve that goal, but they could help, and despite the pessimists, legislation to create them should be possible in the near-future if a campaign is started soon.
More and more labor experts agree that productivity can increase when workers and management together seek solutions to common problems.
And political leaders always are looking for potentially popular ideas that could improve productivity in our increasingly competitive world, while avoiding tax increases and appealing to millions of workers who feel their talents are not appreciated by their bosses.
Perhaps not all employers would fight the proposal if they bought the idea that the committees could be used as weapons to avoid real unions.
However, the committees could become fertile ground for union organizers once workers realize there is great value in having a voice about the way they perform their jobs. At that point, they may also realize how little real influence on company policies they have using only the limited power of the legally required committees.
But whether they help management avoid unions or help revive flagging union strength, the committees would benefit the vast majority of workers who are now excluded from any role in the decision making process of their employers.
With the percentage of the work force represented by unions continuing to drop, union leaders should not ignore a provocative proposal that just might help the labor movement and would certainly benefit the vast majority of America’s workers who are not union members.