The woods are full of perky voices who will tell you a new day is dawning in the workplace--that a labor shortage is creating a buyer’s market for skilled employees, that businesses will begin making widespread concessions to workers’ family needs, that employees will have more of a say in how their companies are run than before.
Much of this will indeed happen in the 1990s. But the changes figure to occur glacially, so slowly as to be almost imperceptible to the average worker, especially the vast majority who work in medium-sized to small companies. It is likely that the 1990s will see more debate than resolution of issues like employee involvement and work versus family.
Part of the reason for this is that many fundamental work-related concerns are shaking down simultaneously and bumping into each other.
The culture of work in America has little tradition of soliciting employees’ views or their loyalty in general. The 1980s added to the wall of distrust between workers and bosses as a wave of restructuring by thousands of corporations displaced millions of employees, who were either laid off or had their hours cut.
Now, having squeezed the size of their work forces as hard as they could, companies are beginning to confront the fact that other alternatives--many long demanded by labor unions and some human resource consultants--must be heeded.
While many workers figure to enjoy kinder, gentler management, considerable tension will remain.
Most companies plan to reduce the percentage of free health benefits that workers receive. The incidence of repetitive-stress injuries, which occur in industries ranging from telecommunications to meat cutting, is outpacing preventive programs. More companies are electronically monitoring their workers’ performance. One-fifth of private sector workers are already being tested for drugs, and the percentage is expected to increase. And while the drastic restructuring of the past decade may taper off, many companies are expected to continue discharging workers under modernistic euphemisms like “modest growth” or “temporary slowdown.”
An unscientific national phone-in poll by a Chicago job counseling company last month found that 44% of 600 responding workers were worried about losing their jobs to forces such as hostile takeovers, economic declines and foreign competition.
Still, there is no shortage of experts who predict positive landmark changes.
If the 1980s were an era of “top down” management, in which companies furiously attempted to cut labor costs to compete globally, creating an atmosphere of anxiety in the workplace, the ‘90s will witness a significant shift of power to employees, said Frank Doyle, senior vice president of corporate relations for General Electric.
Part of reason for this is the already apparent labor shortage. America’s work force, which grew by 2.7% in the 1970s, will grow by barely 1% in this decade. There will be 26% fewer graduates coming out of high school in 1992 than in 1977.
Broader concerns are also forcing companies to pay more attention to their workers.
“Early beliefs that technology would make workers unimportant are being abandoned,” said Ben Fischer, director of the Center for Labor Studies at Carnegie-Mellon University, in a recent speech. “It is now broadly acknowledged that a viable corporate strategy requires positive employee attitudes and far different employee competencies.”
And so corporations are evolving--slowly--from merely allowing interested workers to make suggestions to “embracing pervasive employee involvement strategies,” he said.
As a result, workers at all levels can expect to see their companies grapple or experiment with a variety of management reorganization schemes: quality circles, labor-management participation teams, problem-solving exercises, or union representation on company boards of directors.
Not only will this be hard to see and hard to measure, it will not be pretty. It will come with considerable friction and many missteps because industrial relationships are rooted so strongly in the notion of control of employees by employers.
“In the majority of our workplaces, we have never come to grips with management and control versus freedom and power sharing,” said Floyd L. Wood, a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service district director.
In many companies, the relationship between workers and managers will likely resemble a shaky marriage, in which the partners go through a series of divorces and reconciliations until, after years, they finally overcome their bitterness and distrust.
“There is no road map,” says Doug Griffith, president of United Aerospace Workers Local 148, which represents 17,500 workers at financially troubled Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach. Douglas executives drastically reorganized the company last year, eliminating the jobs of 5,200 managers and requiring them to reapply for employment in a new system that stressed close cooperation with the union.
“Every company has to find its way, and that road isn’t straight,” said Griffith, ruefully recalling several past attempts by Douglas to more closely involve workers in decision making. “It is a winding road filled with potholes.”
Signs of progress will be small. Like the moment that a mechanic who improperly drills a hole in an aircraft part, costing the company $50,000 to fix, is given a re-training session rather than a three-day suspension.
As the supply of educated, trained or trainable workers narrows, employers will be forced to pay unprecedented attention to issues like employee loyalty, experts say.
These bosses “must sell,” says Jonathan A. Segal, a Philadelphia management lawyer whose advice to companies includes instituting “workplace due process,” such as peer review panels to review firings and other disciplinary matters.
Momentum will continue for companies to begin assuming some responsibility for their workers’ child-care problems, either by making schedules more flexible or helping to finance on-site facilities.
Yet here, as in many areas, the trickle-down process is agonizingly slow. So far, for all the lip service and gleaming examples, only about 4,000 of the country’s 6 million employers have made any kind of arrangements to provide child care, and only 1,000 of those involve on-site care. Only 24% of the 8.2 million children under age 5 with working mothers are cared for in group centers or nursery schools. The rest are cared for in home-based centers or by relatives.
The same lack of progress can be found in another often-vaunted trend: white-collar workers who operate from home via computer. Only 3% of workers work full time out of their homes, according to a recent Wall Street Journal survey.
The child-care issue, like many others in the changing world of work, is tied to a thornier question that has been largely unresolved: Should the federal government step in? Should there be federal support for child care? Should the nation’s health-care system be nationalized to provide insurance to an estimated 35 million uninsured American workers and to stop an increasing wave of collective bargaining disputes over the erosion of company-paid health benefit plans? Should the work week itself be shortened, as it has been in much of Western Europe, to ease the pressure on families with children and other family concerns?
The ‘90s promise far more debate on these issues than in the anti-regulation ‘80s. A $1.75-billion child-care subsidy bill that was stymied in Congress last year is certain to be back this year. So are proposals for national health insurance. An increasing number of labor unions have vowed that new contracts should include pledges by employers to lobby congressmen for a new health-care system. It would not be surprising if health care were nationalized in five years, said Audrey Freedman, a management counselor at the Conference Board, an organization that advises businesses.
The role of organized labor in this changing scene is fuzzy.
On one hand, the plunging number of union members has shrunk the national political power of organized labor. Unions represent only 17% of the American work force--half of the peak reached in the 1950s--and only 13% of workers in private industry. This weakness means that there is relatively little muscle on behalf of workers to hold executives and consultants accountable for the “people power” that they are so fond of promising.
Unions have been gutted by a vicious cycle of circumstances: lackluster organizing of new members; losses of members because of massive layoffs in the manufacturing sector; adverse rulings by conservative federal judges and the National Labor Relations Board on the rights of unions to organize and strike and the rights of management to keep unions out of their shops, and the increased willingness of many companies to engage in what their consultants call “union avoidance” strategies and what labor leaders call “union busting.”
Yet despite these withering numbers, there is some optimism these days within many quarters of organized labor.
Labor leaders believe that they can staunch their membership losses by appealing to millions of unorganized workers in the mushrooming service sector--a group of workers ranging from nurses to janitors--and particularly to women and minorities. Several progressive unions have for years attempted to recruit new members by appealing to their anxiety over issues like drug testing, AIDS protection and child care.
Such modernization of unions figures to occur only in fits and starts, however, because unions are rooted in a culture of manufacturing, where wages and fringe benefits--not life outside work--are the most important issues.
Union organizing has suffered, says Jerome Hansen, publisher of a labor newsletter, because “it is based on the existence of a large centralized plant with a few gates.” “The most successful unions will be those who can pressure management on issues of work atmosphere and training,” says General Electric’s Doyle.
The adversity of the 1980s has made some unions more realistic about the relationship between their contract demands and the health of their companies. It has made them more sophisticated about issues such as corporate mergers, non-union subcontracting and the retraining of laid-off workers. And it has made them more determined to resist management demands for contract concessions.
Within many unions--the United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers in particular--sharp debates are taking place about what workplace democracy and cooperation should mean. Unions, forged in an adversary culture and holding long memories of business’s violent opposition, will wrestle beyond the 1990s with these questions.
This year’s contract negotiations between the UAW and the Big Three auto makers may be a preview.
During the ‘80s, the union made numerous contract concessions to the auto makers in exchange for pledges of job security and “jointness,” in which the union worked more closely with management. But significant bitterness remains. For example, while the union’s contract with General Motors prohibits plant shutdowns, GM has in the union’s mind broken the agreement by permanently laying off workers at auto plants deemed to be “indefinitely idled.” Thousands of other jobs have been eliminated through attrition and early retirement.
Can the union and the auto companies find a common ground in this environment? Can they move beyond the distrust that now characterizes labor relations? If not, it will be a sign that millions of industrial workers figure to be left behind as the “new” workplace of the ‘90s evolves.