Review: Working Smart

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

Laura McClure

Working Smart:
A Union Guide to Participation Program and Reengineering
by Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter
Detroit: Labor Notes, 1995, $20 paper.

IF YOU BELIEVE AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, all of labor’s problems come from the outside: worker-hostile courts, Republicans, anti-labor laws. Don’t expect him to point out that labor is also being devoured from within. It’s gotten so bad that some union leaders can’t decide whether their job is to advance workers’ interests or promote corporate profitability.

For nearly two decades now, unionists have been beguiled (or compelled) by their employers to take part in a variety of workplace schemes promising greater “participation” and “involvement.” Although these programs have taken various forms, most of them promote one core idea–that the interests of labor and management are often the same, and that unions should be promoting the profitability of the firm.

U.S. labor leaders by and large have endorsed this concept, which effectively redefines their role as seekers of “win-win solutions” in the workplace.

Fortunately, the people over at the rank and file magazine Labor Notes have been on the case from the outset. Labor Notes’ latest contribution to understanding and resisting anti-worker participation programs is Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering.

The 315-page book, written by long-time LN staffer Jane Slaughter and author/activist Mike Parker, includes all the analytical overviews you might need, but is also rich with nitty-gritty examples of how participation programs have been applied at telephone companies, campuses and auto assembly plants (as well as in Mexico, Sweden and Japan).

In addition Working Smart has many practical suggestions and smart strategies for dealing with a participation program if one happens to land in your workplace.

Parker and Slaughter point out that there are really two parts to this phenomenon. Participation programs–the sweeter-sounding side of the deal–might be quality circles or joint labor-management committees that meet to discuss productivity, quality or working conditions, generally outside the regular work process.

Then there’s the dark underside, which Parker and Slaughter call “management-by-stress.” This is how the ideas discussed in participation programs are really carried out in the office or on the shop floor: speedup, deskilling of jobs, contracting out, heavy monitoring by the employer and, very often, layoffs–er, increased productivity.

In the Mail Handlers Union, volunteer “quality of work life committees” first began meeting in 1981, typically for an hour a week, to talk about working conditions. It was a period of “securing creature comforts,” writes MHU Local 300 president Larry Adams in a chapter in Working Smart.

Things the union had been demanding for a long time–such as foam rubber mats for standing on concrete floors–suddenly became available through the QWL circles. “By providing an alternative mechanism to the union,” writes Adams, “management hoped to undermine members’ confidence in their local.”

From QWL to TQM

Later, also typical of participation programs, the focus of QWL turned more explicitly to the issue of enhancing productivity. One QWL circle got an award for their clever idea to “shrink-wrap the mail of one particular large-volume mailer,” writes Adams. The result: eight job slots were immediately eliminated.

By 1991, again typically, the Postal Service had moved on to “total quality management,” a less touchy-feely approach to achieving the same end–now defined as “customer satisfaction, employee commitment and revenue enhancement.” By this time Local 300 had withdrawn from QWL in disgust.

“Management has moved from one alphabet soup to the next, and mail handlers are still confronted with the task of defining and distinguishing our interests from theirs,” writes Adams.

As Parker and Slaughter note, there’s lots to like about the idea of participation. It builds on workers’ pride in their good work; it promises a better-run workplace; it can give workers a chance to expand their understanding and skills and lessen painful conflicts with management.

Some of the participation programs cited get mixed reviews. A majority of workers at General Motors’ famous Saturn plant, for instance, say they are pretty happy about their intensive model of labor-management partnership. Parker and Slaughter note that many workers like being “more involved in what happens at work” than in at GM plants.

Two common union approaches to participation programs are thoroughly analyzed. Unions most often opt for “protective involvement”–taking part in the program in exchange for management’s recognition that the interests of the union will be protected. It’s a problematic strategy at best, contend Parker and Slaughter, because the union usually comes under intense management pressure without enough countervailing strength from the rank and file.

A better choice is “mobilized involvement,” keeping union members highly active and educated both inside the participation program and outside. Parker and Slaughter offer numerous suggestions for making “mobilized involvement” work–for example, adding a separate union orientation onto the participation program to “inoculate” members against the company messages they will receive.

Working Smart is full of strategies for helping workers understand, evaluate and effectively use participation programs to meet their own interests. The book’s specificity is refreshing after all the sweet-talking generalities about labor-management cooperation coming from everyone from Labor Secretary Robert Reich to the captains of industry–and, of course, Lane.

After a year and a half, Reich’s commission of prestigious academics (the Commission on the Future of Labor-Management Relations, known as the Dunlop Commission) came up with a picture of labor-management cooperation that is a dense fog compared to Working Smart.

Parker, Slaughter and the other contributors to this Labor Notes book really have more to offer. The analytical view from the shop floor is clearer than the one from the ivory tower.

ATC 58, September-October 1995