Turbulence At Work
By Nancy Lessin and Charley Richardson
Whether it is new technology or new work practices, change in the
workplace is near-universal and occurring nearly every day. UE members cannot afford to
sit quietly on the sidelines, waiting for the next set of contract negotiations, while
workplace change impacts their wages, working conditions and quite possibly the strength
of their union. UE locals are advised to respond quickly and consistently to the kinds of
developments described here by Nancy Lessin and Charley Richardson. If change is constant,
bargaining should be, too. Bargaining is a process that gives workers a voice through
their union; it doesnt have to be reserved for end-of-term talks on a new agreement
every three years or so.
John H. Hovis
General President, UE
At a recent training session, union members were asked to describe the current
situation in their workplaces. Participants spoke of dealing with rapid and ongoing
change, of workplaces without clear rules, of dealing daily with entirely new situations.
One participants answer stood out from the rest. He responded with a single word:
turbulence. This more than anything summed up the long list of changes that
previous speakers had generated to describe what they face on a daily basis.
"Turbulence" describes a workplace that is constantly changing with no
apparent rhyme or reason without rules that workers can recognize, use or control.
But the new workplace has its rules rules that serve managements goals.
New technologies and innovations in work organization provide management with a new series
of choices which help them bypass or disrupt traditional sources of union strength, such
as skill and unity. Expanding choice for management translates into declining control for
unions and union members.
The constant change in the American workplace ranges from wholesale industrial
restructuring to changes in the particular processes of production and service delivery.
In all sectors of the economy, new technologies (particularly computers and
computer-controlled equipment), new ways of organizing work (such as cells, teams,
just-in-time, operator maintenance, etc.) and new forms of labor-management interaction
(including a wide array of Total Quality Management [TQM] and involvement programs) are
now entering the workplace on a regular and ongoing basis.
These changes have a direct impact on all of the issues that are important to the
workforce including job security, wages, hours of work, work pace, health and
safety, skill, and other conditions of work. The changes also undermine unions
leverage with management, weakening the ability of unions to protect their members,
improve conditions and build a better and more secure future.
The symptoms of management-controlled change in the workplace are visible throughout
the economy and society. With the help of technology and new forms of work organization,
traditional skills are being bypassed and work is being de-skilled; workers are being
continuously monitored; and jobs are being intensified, sped up, and eliminated. An
increasing number of jobs can be located practically anywhere, and can be rapidly
re-located moved out of the reach of local and even national unions. Even within a
workplace, jobs are often redefined in the course of technological change and moved
outside the bargaining unit.
The negative impact on workers occur in highly unionized as well as sparsely unionized
sectors of the economy and in union as well as non-union workplaces. Although unions
continue to provide significant benefits for their members, all workers have suffered from
the impacts of workplace change. In fact, the target of technological change and work
re-organization is often the union jobs that management would like to eliminate, and the
skilled union workers that management does not want to rely on. The end results include
increased pace of work, declining wages, growing stress, increased repetitive strain
injuries, and a decline in full-time, permanent jobs.
New technologies allow management to eliminate, monitor, move and re-structure work in
ways that were practically unimaginable a few short years ago. Over-the-road truck
drivers, for example, can be constantly monitored from anywhere in the world through the
use of global positioning systems (GPS) and satellite communications. The information
gathered from this monitoring is in turn used to increase management control over the
transport system, to eliminate down-time, to increase the flexibility of the system and to
cut back on jobs (especially permanent and full-time).
New ways of organizing work are challenging and/or bypassing many of the techniques
that unions have used to exert day-to-day control in the workplace, such as job
descriptions, mandated staffing levels and work rules. Cells and teams, for example, are
often built on job rotation, taking away individual control over and ownership of work.
And the end result is usually fewer workers with less control over their lives at work. In
health care, for example, a shift to unlicensed personnel, called "patient care
technicians," is used to displace registered nurses. This has eliminated skilled and
often unionized jobs, and increased pressure on those nurses who are left on the job. The
reduction in skill requirements in turn tends to undermine the bargaining power of the
workforce as a whole.
Part of the problem for unions and organized workers is that the system of periodic
contract bargaining leaves the union with little recourse in the face of constant change.
Unions are placed at a serious disadvantage by management rights clauses in most contracts
which shut the door on bargaining over change and by a legal system that treats change as
a permissive rather than a mandatory subject of bargaining.
Quality and involvement programs, meanwhile, are being used to introduce a workplace
culture that leaves little room for traditional union values and activity. The rhetoric of
involvement and empowerment is based on individual or "team" activity within a
workplace program created and controlled by management. The idea is to eliminate or bypass
independent and collective (union) action. Involvement programs seek to build workforce
"alignment" with management-determined organizational goals using the carrot of
inclusion and voice, and the stick of competitiveness and downsizing.
FEELING OF INSECURITY
The disruption of stable work and the undermining of hope is reflected in the growth of
the contingent workforce, and in the growth of feelings of insecurity among workers. Polls
have shown that large portions of the workforce are concerned about the future of their
Two-thirds of the jobs that were created in 1993 were contingent jobs, with no security
and little or no future. Contrary to the management celebration of flexibility which
implies that contingency is somehow what workers are looking for, two-thirds of contingent
workers want a traditional job. Yet predictions are that people now entering the workforce
will change jobs at least seven or eight times and will change careers three or four
times. And while wages have been declining, the variability of wages (the amount that
wages for individual workers rise and fall year to year) has grown. The changes occurring
in the workplace are experienced by working people as a move toward massive uncertainty
and insecurity, as an inability to plan for a future.
Publications like Business Week promote the idea that insecurity is the wave of
the future, that there is no possibility of a "solution" and that the best we,
as individuals, can hope for is that we will be among the few who prosper rather than the
many who will fail. And Business Week argues that there is no one to blame, only
the "inexorable forces of economic and technological change." The best they
offer as a prescription is to "embrace risk" and to make sure that you, as an
individual, are one of the lucky ones that make it. There is specific advice to avoid the
calls for re-distribution of wealth, and to avoid any show of collective strength. Their
solutions, aimed at the individual, are in fact aimed at preventing effective
organization, seek to reverse Eugene Debs vision and have the few rise from the
class rather than all rise with the class.
Where is the labor movements alternative vision for the future? And what is the
strategy to achieve that vision? Many workers question whether unions have a real strategy
and for good reason.
UNIONS CIRCLE THE WAGONS
In general, unions have failed to develop a coherent strategic response to change in
the workplace that will protect their membership and the union from the negative impacts.
This has challenged the belief of many current members that their unions can be the
organization that will take the lead in building their future. This lack of faith seems
particularly strong among younger workers. Worse still, attention to the direct impact of
workplace changes on the ability of unions to organize has been practically non-existent.
There has been little or no discussion of how to adapt organizing strategies to deal with
the issues and questions raised by our increasingly unstable and changing workplaces.
Instead of bold new plans to deal with workplace change, many unions have adopted a
strategy of circling the wagons and protecting current members, without regard to the
overall social impact or even the long-term impact on the union. The perception clearly
exists that unions will protect their members at the expense of people who are not yet
organized, at the expense of the workforce in general and at the expense of the future.
Many unions, for example, have negotiated no-layoff clauses which leave the door wide
open to workforce reduction through attrition. In discussing the problems with a
"Partnership" in the federal sector that assumed the elimination of 250,000
federal jobs (actually over 300,000 were eliminated), the leader of a large public
employee local told us that it was okay because the jobs would be lost through attrition,
rather than layoffs. And here is the catch. Attrition protects current workers (current
union members) but ignores the question that is critical for many: What about the future,
what about our kids jobs? For those entering the workforce, for those aspiring to
higher paid and more stable work, each job lost to attrition is a lost opportunity for
building a future. By accepting attrition, the union in essence abandoned those outside
the union who are trying to improve themselves and their families the union
abandoned the future.
In some industries, massive levels of overtime (often voluntary) appear to support the
arguments of those who say that unions and union members are only out for themselves. In
an attempt to maintain or raise their standard of living in the face of stagnant wages,
workers in many industries are working more overtime than at any other time since the
Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data. Americans overall are working
approximately four weeks per year more than they were 25 years ago. But increased overtime
lives alongside enforced contingency. If those within the union are working large amounts
of overtime, the spaces available in the "good job line" are reduced for those
stuck in contingent work, thus supporting the perception that unions are not good for the
overall workforce and are only watching out for their existing members.
Despite the significance of workplace change for peoples view of the future, and
their view of unions, there seems to be little recognition within the union movement of
the seriousness of the gap between union mechanisms and promises, and the reality of the
Management, on the other hand, is using the turbulence associated with workplace change
to its own advantage asserting that achieving "competitiveness" is the
only source of stability and that unions with their work rules are a threat to
competitiveness. Threatened with "the competition," union members are drawn into
individual discussions of "continuous improvement" (a.k.a. constant speed-up)
and are pushed to accept merit-based wage and advancement systems as well as variable (and
insecure) wage plans such as gain-sharing and profit-sharing. The end result is that
workers push themselves and their fellow workers to the limit and beyond.
As long as there is not a clear collective voice standing up for hope, people will
pursue individual solutions, and in doing so will undermine the possibility of broader,
DIRECTIONS FOR THE FUTURE
From our investigation, it seems that the key elements of a union message must be to:
- Acknowledge peoples fear, pain and anger, and be a voice for those feelings.
- Aim the blame at the appropriate parties this is someones fault.
- Analyze, evaluate and bring some logic to the turbulence.
- Organize the struggle against the guilty parties and in doing so, bring hope for the
We must let people know that they are right to be angry, we must join in voicing that
anger, we must explain the underlying logic of the turbulence these are not random
events that are taking away peoples futures, and we must clearly point the finger at
the responsible parties while leading the way to collective action.
This all has implications for how we organize as well as for how unions operate within
the changing workplace. Kate Bronfrenbrenner and Tom Juravich, in their studies of
organizing, point to this when they say that, "Rather than narrowly focusing on the
election, organizers need to build a union, and workers need to act like a union, from the
very beginning of the campaign."
(Indeed, this is part of UEs strategy for organizing success.)
PITFALLS OF 'PARTNERSHIP'
This is also good advice for existing unions trying to deal with workplace change. If
unions are sitting down and claiming partnership and joint decision-making with
management, it becomes more difficult for the union to blame this same management when
decisions are made that hurt the workforce. Unions then become unable to give voice to the
members fear and anger or to organize them to fight. In this way, cooperation can
set unions up by taking fault away from management. On the other hand, it should be
recognized that standing on the sidelines, refusing to deal with the change that is going
on daily, is also abandoning the future.
Aggressive action to deal with change in the workplace, to bargain for the needs and
interests of the workforce, have to be a major piece of the union agenda. There needs to
be increasing attention to the issues of security and voice for the workforce,
particularly now when turbulence is undercutting security and voice even in heavily
unionized sectors. Aggressive leadership on dealing with workplace change is critical for
peoples willingness and desire to organize.
In our unions we need a structure and activity which deals with change on a regular and
ongoing basis so that our organizing messages are backed up by reality. This requires a
fundamental re-thinking of union approaches to bargaining over change.
In our organizing drives, we must speak directly to the fears that people have and to
their needs for the future.
We have to recognize that the changes that are occurring in the workplace have an
impact on how the potential members view their jobs and the union. Dealing with change
should be a part of the campaign. If computerization is on the horizon, the organizing
campaign needs to talk about it. If total quality management or ISO 9000 is being planned,
the campaign needs to know.
Building an understanding of change among the members and building a campaign which
both acknowledges change and seeks to protect the members from its negative aspects is
critical. Then perhaps the main argument for joining a union, to have more of a voice in
your future, becomes even more powerful, and honest.
(This article is based on "Organizing in the Changing Workplace: Confronting
the Politics of Hope" by Nancy Lessin, president of USWA Local 9267 and Charley
Richardson, director of the Technology and Work Program of the University of
Massachusetts-Lowell. Richardson has presented workshops on the new technology and
workplace changes at UE National Conventions, including the 62nd National Convention last
(Copies of Richardsons pamphlet "Employee Involvement: Watching Out for the
Tricks and Traps" are available from the author at the Labor Extension Program,
University of Massachusetts/Lowell, Lowell, MA 01854. An earlier version of this document
had been distributed at the UE Convention.)
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