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Turbulence, Inc. The Factory of the Future is Here Now.



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 doesn’t 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 participant’s 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 management’s 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.


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 jobs.

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 movement’s 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.


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 current workplace.

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, collective success.


From our investigation, it seems that the key elements of a union message must be to:

  • Acknowledge people’s fear, pain and anger, and be a voice for those feelings.
  • Aim the blame at the appropriate parties — this is someone’s 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 future.

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 UE’s strategy for organizing success.)


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 September.)

(Copies of Richardson’s 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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