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'Work rules' eased up to aid hard-pressed industries

Amtrak was looking for a way to cut costs. And there, in a 60-year-old, obsolete labor practice, it found one.

Back when running a train required firemen to shovel coal and engineers to watch over a boiler, it took a day's work to push a train 100 miles. That's why engineers were paid by the 100 miles.

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But does the same reasoning apply in 1982, when trains can go 300 miles in eight hours - paying engineers three times a day's wages? It did until two weeks ago, when Amtrak finally put the brakes to the practice. It signed a contract with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers stating that payment would be based on hours worked.

Today, Amtrak isn't the only company turning over every stone - or union work rule - looking for a way to cut costs. Deregulation, stepped-up global competition, and plain old recession have set the railroad, trucking, auto, rubber, steel, and construction industries (to name a few) weeding out inefficiencies in production.

''A lot of industries in competitive situations are having to change rapidly, and in that sense pressure on union rules may be much greater'' than in the past , says Audrey Freedman, chief labor economist at the Conference Board. At the same time, work rules are put in place by unions ''for good reasons,'' and management has to consider this, she says.

A work rule is a broad term. It can outline a job description, a work schedule, a way of being paid, seniority practices, crew sizes, overtime procedures . . . even a coffee break. In many industries management regards details of these rules, some of them unwritten, as restrictive. And while management may not have paid as much attention to them when profits soared, they are paying more attention now.

Ford Motor Company has been eyeing work rules closely since 1979, ''and emphasis has increased since then,'' says Robert Plummer, union relations manager for Ford's body and assembly division.

Changes have been initiated locally, not through national negotiations, he says. ''Every local has its own agreements and unique work practices, and in these agreements are some inefficiencies that have developed over the years.''

In some plants, workers have agreed to merge job categories. For instance, the job of inspecting pieces on an assembly line and the task of repairing the mistakes have been combined into one job.

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Last spring, at the Norfolk, Va., assembly plant, changes were made in scheduling. Instead of having a relief person take your place on an assembly when it's time for your break, the whole line shuts down for a break, Mr. Plummer says. It's ''a saving on manpower - plus better quality, because you have one operator doing the job.''

In other plants, workers have agreed to overlook seniority and scheduling rules during temporary layoffs. To keep a plant from closing for a few weeks, an inefficiency from management's side, workers in some plants have agreed to let the day shift work one week and the night shift work the next. All workers are employed (not just senior ones from both shifts, which is why Ford needs permission).

Most of the time, Plummer said, work rule changes are arranged between labor and management in informal discussions. ''The rules on the books don't change. Because union leaders are voted in, they have to watch what they do publicly. This way, if there is bellyaching about a change among union members, the leaders can come back to management and try something else.''

The railroad industry, struggling to stay competitive in the face of recession, is also looking at work rules. The emergency board that dealt with the September national railroad strike has provided for a special commission to review wage and work rules for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union. Some areas to be reviewed will be basis of pay, arbitraries (extra pay for performing certain tasks), and personal leave.

For the past two years, the construction industry has hammered fewer nails. Unionized contractors feel the recession - and competition from more open shops (nonunion contractors). This year, unionized contractors have begun zero-base negotiating, under which all aspects of an old contract are up for negotiation.

The 15-odd unions that make up the construction industry will have to make changes, says Richard Pepper, senior vice-president of the Associated General Contractors of America. ''It's a matter of survival.''

This year already, the unions have made concessions in allowing ''helpers'' (nonskilled craftsmen) to assist skilled craftsmen on the job. ''It doesn't make sense to pay a skilled tradesman $20 to $22 an hour to do jobs like carrying lumber or pipe from one location to another,'' Mr. Pepper reasons.

But ''are work rules really where the problems are?'' questions Dr. John Russo, director of labor studies for Youngstown State University in Ohio. ''Management blames the productivity problem on the American workers. That's very suspect.''

In talks Dr. Russo had with auto workers at the General Motors Lordstown plant this year, a plant known in the past for tense labor-management relations, labor pointed the finger, too.

''They (the UAW workers) felt productivity was not only a result of how much workers put out, but also a function of capital investment, the way work is organized, technological change, administrative responsibilities, education of workers, and improved products,'' he related.

Dr. Russo points out the main reason behind work rules in the first place: ''Basically, they are made to protect jobs. The system generates restrictive work rules where there is no job security.''

At Nucor Corporation, which manufactures steel from scrap in electric furnaces, there are no unions - but there is job security.

"It's very true that in the steel industry there are restrictive work rules in large integrated steel mills,'' says Nucor's president, Kenneth Iverson. ''We don't have these kinds of problems here . . . because we also have an unusual practice. We haven't laid off a single hourly worker for close to 15 years. We believe in permanent employment.'' When times are rough, all workers work reduced work shifts, but no one gets laid off, he says.

Sam Camens, assistant to the president of the United Steel Workers union, emphasizes: ''During a period of economic downturn, industry is always looking for ways to improve cost effectiveness. They try and take back things they once agreed to - workers resist this.

''Work rules are just as important to workers as any wage increase or benefit , because (labor) has to work under those local conditions,'' he says.

But Peter Schofield, manager of labor relations at Firestone's world tire group, says many managers recognize this point and are making sincere efforts to cooperate with labor. He says that at Firestone, where some work rules have recently been changed, the company encourages worker participation in management. It ''has been working, through various forums, to discover ways to educate employees, and let them educate usm , on what the concerns are.

''A lot of people are saying that once the economy becomes rosy, management will go back to its autocratic style. If that happens, shame on us.''

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