Workplace Democracy Could Revitalize Douglas

There's no doubt about it: The small group of executives at the multibillion-dollar McDonnell Douglas Corp. needed tremendous courage when they wisely decided earlier this year to revolutionize the way of life at their Douglas Aircraft subsidiary in Long Beach.

They knew that they would create near-chaos initially among both managers and the 17,600 Douglas workers when they started trying to make the company a model of workplace democracy, probably the largest yet attempted in the United States. Workplace democracy means involving workers directly in company decision making.

The executives also knew that, like most revolutions, their own would almost surely ignite a counterrevolution that could destroy the new system and further weaken the financially troubled company.

Even if the revolution succeeded, success could take months and perhaps even longer to be realized, and a lengthy time lapse between the first wobbly beginning and a thriving workplace democracy could seriously hurt the company's already lagging production schedule and its standing on Wall Street.

However, it was a gamble worth taking. The dramatic changes being made offer the best chance for Douglas employees to improve their jobs and incomes and for the company to start making substantial profits.

Other giant corporations such as General Motors, Ford, and AT&T; have introduced workplace democracy in some of their facilities. But the joint venture of General Motors and Toyota at the New United Motors Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) plant in Fremont, Calif., is one of the few using the system as extensively as Douglas plans to do. And NUMMI involves far fewer workers.

Douglas' entire organizational structure was streamlined. There was a drastic and much needed cut in the number of management levels. The number of workers in each team was sharply reduced to an average of nine, and they are headed by elected instead of company-appointed team leaders.

Almost every working day at 4:30 p.m., top company executives meet with officers of the United Auto Workers or other elected worker representatives to jointly make decisions about almost all company policies.

Human resources vice presidents and worker representatives have offices so close to one another that they can make daily decisions together by walking at most a few feet to talk to each other face to face. Most shop floor decisions are made by workers and their team leaders. In sum, Douglas ain't what it used to be just a few months ago, and it isn't what it will be in a few more months--if, that is, all goes as the nervy company and union leaders plan.

One of the more troublesome "ifs" is the infighting among members and officers of UAW Local 148 that represents most of the Douglas Long Beach workers. Another equally troublesome problem is the confusion and bitterness in the ranks of management.

UAW Local 148 is badly split over both the concept of workplace democracy and the way that it is being implemented at Douglas. They are fighting each other more furiously than they often battled management in the past.

Some, like a relatively small faction of UAW members and leaders across the country, see the new system as a sellout that allows both company and union officers to join forces and unfairly manipulate workers.

A majority of delegates at the million-member UAW's last convention supported workplace democracy, but those who fear it continue denouncing those trying to make it succeed.

And those who like it, such as UAW Local 148 President Douglas Griffith, have nothing but contempt for those trying to either get rid of the system directly, or indirectly, by demanding so many drastic changes that the system will die from the shock of major surgery.

The naysayers at Douglas belong to a group called RAP (Responsible Action Program), and RAP members are linked to a nationwide dissident faction within the UAW called New Directions.

One RAP member and former local official, Glen Plunkett, says workplace democracy may be able to succeed at Douglas, but not while men like the local's president, Griffith, have anything to do with it. That's a clear sign that internal union politics are a factor in the system's future at Douglas.

But Griffith exudes confidence: "We want to get to a self-managing work force, where managers are coaches, mentors and cheer leaders, not traditional policemen."

Also optimistic is UAW Regional Director Bruce Lee, who is an architect of the system that is working so well at NUMMI and is helping to make it operational at Douglas.

The system can function well if Lee and others in the UAW can minimize union politics and get the workers to cooperate both with each other and with management. Lee insists that will be done.

The other big "if" in the path of success at Douglas is the cooperation of company managers, some of whom are frustrated by the drastic change that has already taken away much of their old authority.

That management side of the problem began when key corporate executives shocked 5,200 managers, supervisors and other company executives last February by telling them that they were not being fired but that almost all of their jobs were being eliminated.

Those who wanted to could stay by reapplying for a job and passing personality and other tests to make sure that they really were leaders who could be team players, not just order-givers.

The decision, so abruptly announced, that managers must democratize or get out badly damaged morale. The goal of bringing about the necessary sweeping attitudinal changes could have been handled with more finesse.

But at least Douglas managers are not uncertain now about the general direction that they are supposed to be going as managers. And when their roles are defined more clearly, they can join Doulgas workers and the union in effectively implementing an exciting example of democracy in the workplace.

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