A little-noticed battle raging in the Senate around the minimum-wage/gas-tax package speaks volumes about labor unions' apparent inability to adapt to the modern era. At issue is whether employees in nonunion shops should have the right to discuss production and workplace issues with management.
For many years the idea that managers should sit down with employees to plot strategy, improve quality and productivity, and discuss safety has spread throughout industry. It's been partly spurred by the example of "quality circles" and other cooperative efforts in Japanese and Swedish factories.
Management-labor cooperation instead of confrontation makes a lot of sense. The people actually doing the work often have a better handle on problems and their solutions than company executives in offices high above the shop floor or across the country. Worker suggestions on how to better manufacture a product or improve work flow have saved or made billions of dollars for American industry. Many companies, not just in manufacturing, would be far better off for consulting more regularly with their employees.
Unfortunately, unions are using a 1935 law to prohibit and inhibit nonunion companies from doing this. The National Labor Relations Act says that employers in nonunion companies cannot share decisionmaking with their workers.
In 1935 this provision of the law had a serious rationale. It was intended to prevent the formation of "company unions" that were sham organizations controlled by management to keep real unions out. At a time when a 19th-century hierarchical labor-management model prevailed in American factories, this was an important protection for workers. But times have changed and so has the organization of the American workplace - especially in the small firms that create many of the new jobs today. Only union attitudes, backed by an outdated law, remain set in cement.
What usually happens is this: A nonunion firm organizes a committee to discuss quality, production, and other workplace issues. Sometimes these discussions involve policy issues such as grievance procedures, vacation scheduling, and work rules. A big union comes along and tries to organize the workers. When the workers vote in a democratic election to reject the union, it files an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which then rules against the company.
The Team Act, which Sen. Bob Dole wants considered along with the minimum-wage and gas-tax bills, would amend the labor-relations act to permit employers at nonunion workplaces to communicate directly with employees about issues that concern them, involve them in decisionmaking, and resolve employment issues. It would in no way infringe on workers' right to join a union, would not interfere with already established unions (which must approve such cooperative efforts in their workplaces), and would keep in place protection against sham unions.
A union that's providing real benefits to its members should have nothing to fear from this bill. The need for American companies to better compete in a global market, thus preserving American jobs, demands such an approach. The Senate, either as part of the wage-tax package or separately, should pass the Team Act.