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The flexibility factor

Is it really gone now - that brief era of union-management cooperation that marked much of American industry during the early 1980s? If so, that would be unfortunate indeed at a time when mutual compromise and common purpose are absolutely necessary to ensure the future well-being of US industry.

The various strikes and labor disputes of recent weeks have not been major confrontations, in the sense of the protracted and stormy union battles of past years. Yet, it is noteworthy that one of the thorniest issues in the current airline and telephone strikes involves the matter of worker flexibility. In both cases the union's leaders insist that they are seeking to protect ''job security'' for their members. The firms, Continental Airlines and American Telephone & Telegraph, want maximum flexibility as to how their work force is best used. The task for negotiators is obviously to reach a middle ground.

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Given the fact that negotiations are now under way in both disputes and a settlement could come at any moment, it would be premature to assess the blame for the impasse in the strikes. At the same time, the clash over flexibility raises warning signals for other US industries, particularly autos and steel. Surely, there is enough culpability to go around for both US management and unions. In the case of management, many firms have been only too willing to see workers ''locked'' into specific assembly line positions. Unions, for their part , have welcomed such arrangements as a way of ensuring security for large work forces.

Given the pressures now under way throughout US industry to downsize and consolidate costly and inefficient manufacturing operations (a downsizing stemming from the recent recession, computerization, and lower-cost foreign competition), it seems clear that workers will have to be more open to change, more willing to take on new duties. For unions to resist such flexibility would be ultimately self-defeating. Management would seem to have an equal obligation to be fair regarding proposed wage and benefit packages.

Granted it is no doubt impossible to return fully to the type of concessionary (as opposed to confrontational) bargaining practices that marked, for example, the Chrysler Corporation in the early 1980s. Unions want to ''catch up'' financially after the pay cuts and relinquished benefits accepted during the recession. But do American management and labor really relish a return to the pell-mell confrontation of the past? Many of the nation's major industrial competitors (such as West Germany and Japan) have shown that unions and manangement can work together to ensure the long-range success of an industry. It is a lesson that US management and labor would seem ill-advised to ignore.

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