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Dunlop Panel Ideas Face Political Reality Check

Slow economic growth and a shortage of blue-collar jobs has helped heighten tensions in the workplace, report says

WILL the Dunlop Commission report - about the future of American worker-management relations - end up gathering dust on a shelf like so many previous reports by various government commissions?

The commission, headed by former Labor Secretary John Dunlop, was appointed by the Clinton administration last year. Its report says slower economic growth, stagnant real wages, and a shortage of blue-collar jobs has heightened tensions between employees and their managers. The commission submitted its findings last week to Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

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The commission was set up to revamp the laws that govern the American workplace, including the right to collective bargaining, payment for overtime work, antidiscrimination mandates, and eligibility for unpaid medical leave. The White House hopes to stimulate debate and to devise a new direction for worker-management relations.

But skeptics doubt whether the dialogue will affect change. ``What the [commission] tried to do is set up an environment in which there can be a discourse'' between the two sides, says Jeffrey McGuinness, president of the Labor Policy Association, an organization of the top human-resource managers of 220 Fortune 500 companies.

Because they operate in such an emotionally charged environment, the two players have never ``given [each other] a full and fair hearing,'' Mr. McGuinness says. ``They have `always been at each other's throats.' '' While the commission gives each side an opportunity to voice its concerns, McGuinness says he does not expect extensive changes in labor laws. ``Neither side is going to be giving in,'' he says.

The needs of today's workplace ``arguably differ in some important ways from those of the workers who were envisaged in traditional labor laws,'' the Dunlop Commission says. The profile of the typical worker and his or her job has changed dramatically since the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.

The commission identifies these trends:

* More Americans are working, a development that reflects the larger percentage of women in the work force.

* Technology has changed the way information is exchanged, jobs now require more education, and workers are expected to take more management initiative.

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* Although United States workers are, on average (per worker and per hour), the most productive of the world's major economies, they work more hours, and income inequalities are sharper.

* There has been a shift from manufactured goods production to the service sector.

``The move away from the stereotypical model of a male wage earner with a wife and family at home poses the question of whether existing policies are flexible enough,'' the commission says.

For example, women are sometimes denied needed unemployment benefits, says Heidi Hartman, executive director of the Institute for Women's Policy Studies in Washington. ``[The law] tends to do more good for full-time workers,'' she says, shortchanging part-time workers and women who may enter and leave the work force more frequently for family reasons.

Ms. Hartman says women may also be denied benefits if they have left jobs to follow their husband's work and are unable to find a new job. Unemployment laws were written in ``an era when only one adult was an income earner.''

The Dunlop Commission also points to a widening gap in earnings between labor and management. ``The trend has been gathering momentum for 15 years.... A society divided between the haves and have-nots or between the well-educated and the poorly educated that becomes sharply divided over time cannot be prosperous or a stable society,'' Secretary Reich cautions.

At the same time, collective bargaining and union representation has waned; there has been ``a disintegration of the capacity at the workplace, unionized or nonunionized, to handle disputes,'' Reich adds. Disputes over employment have risen 500 percent since 1971.

The Dunlop Commission finds that employees' interest in participating in decisionmaking is on the rise and will continue to grow as the work force becomes more educated.

However, the report says ``between 40 [million] and 50 million workers would like to participate in decisions on their job but lack the opportunity to do so.''

The commission's recommendations are expected to be made later this year.

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