Presidential Commission: Worker-Management Relations

Findings of the Presidential Commission on the Future of Worker Management Relations: Policy Implications

The Dunlop Commission report on the on the future of worker-management relations discusses the heightened tensions between employees and their managers due to slower economic growth, stagnant real wages, and a shortage of blue-collar jobs. The commission reviewed what changes should be made in laws and collective bargaining practices to reduce conflict and how to resolve more workplace problems without the courts or government action. Also, the report explored how to enhance workplace productivity through labor-management cooperation and employee participation.

The commission’s major findings were as follows:

  • There has been a shift from manufactured goods production to the service sector.
  • Technology has changed the way information is exchanged, jobs now require more education, and workers are expected to take more management initiative.
  • More people are working, a reflection of the larger percentage of women in the work force.
  • Although United States workers are, on average, the most productive of the world’s major economies. However, they work more hours and income inequalities are sharper.

The reported states, “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.” For example, women are sometimes denied unemployment benefits because the law tends to do more good for full-time workers, rather than part-time workers and women who may enter and leave the work force more often for family reasons. Women may also be denied benefits if they have left jobs to because their husband’s job relocated and are unable to find a new job. By and large, unemployment laws were written in an era when only one adult was an income earner.

In addition, the Dunlop Commission finds that employees’ interest in participating in decision-making is on the rise and will continue to grow as the work force becomes more educated. Incomes and working conditions have been declining steadily for two decades due to a concentration of power among employers rather than workers. A possible solution is laws that strengthen workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively, not reduce them.

The Dunlop Commission also points to a widening gap in earnings between labor and management. This trend has been gathering momentum for many years due to divisions in society between well-educated, high wage earners and poorly-educated, low wage earners. At the same time, collective bargaining and union representation has waned due to a disintegration of workplace capacity to handle disputes, whether unionized or non-unionized.

The problems associated with the commission’s report include a lack of functional recommendations dealing with the real situation of the anxiety of workers in this country who are putting in longer hours to take home less money for jobs that are increasingly insecure.

If American companies and employees are to maintain their competitive edge into the next century, employment policies must become more flexible, less bureaucratized, and supportive of cooperative work relationships. By focusing its recommendations on strengthening union organizing, the commission’s report represents a lost opportunity. The Dunlop Commission could have called for changing labor law to remove impediments to team-based cooperative work arrangements in non-union settings.

Two Dunlop proposals, on alternative dispute resolution and amending the NLRA to boost employee participation, are measures that would have a chance of passing in this Congress. In the employment area, litigation has increased greatly which may harm the competitiveness of business in the U.S.

In regards to union representation in the workplace, a key to opening up the process is automatic recognition once an uncoerced majority of workers have signed cards stating they want union representation. The standard argument against this is that a signed union authorization card does not reflect the true desires of the worker. But no one argues that the same worker’s signature on other documents does not represent his/her true desires.

Rather then ceding their voices and prerogatives to management, workers should be encouraged to choose their own spokesmen. They should be welcomed on their own, not through management designees, into the process by which their companies improve their competitive standing. That way, the process will be more credible and more productive. For the workers, it means the fullest participation in the workplace and the fulfillment of the highest promise offered by a truly democratic society.

The overall picture is one of dramatic changes that affect the working lives of nearly all Americans and pose major challenges to worker-management relations. In terms of policy measures, existing institutions and regulations must be adjusted to fit the needs of employers and employees. Furthermore, companies should devise programs to involve workers further in decision-making in order to better utilize worker potential.

According to the commission, sustained and integrated employee participation has generally improved economic performance, but it does not function well in all workplaces. Potential policy changes could include mandatory programs to insure an appropriate duration and viability of increased participation. It is important to proceed with further research into the government policies and legal constraints impeding trust and dialogue between workers and management.

Furthermore, the commission particularly notes that Section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which was designed to prohibit company unions, may critically impede growth of some employee involvement programs and give rise to challenges against joint worker-management committees. It suggests that consideration be given to revising or reinterpreting the NLRA to more clearly permit forms of labor-management cooperation that may be inconsistent with Section 8(a)(2).

American employees have been promised many legal rights and protections by both federal and state lawmakers. These include minimum wages, a safe and healthy workplace, security and accessibility of pensions and health benefits if they are provided. Also, advance notice of plant closings and mass layoffs, unpaid family and medical leave, bans on wrongful dismissal, and employment opportunities and conditions unaffected by discrimination on account of race, gender, religion, age, or disability. Implementation and enforcement of these legal rights requires litigation in the ordinary courts or administrative proceedings before specialized agencies.

The United States relies on the civil court system to litigate employment disputes, while many other nations use specialized employment courts. Administrative procedures for resolving employment cases are complicated by the large number of agencies, enforcement regimes, and remedies available under the different statutes as well as the varying scope of judicial review accorded agency decisions. Neither mediation and arbitration nor the newer, less formal systems of alternative dispute resolution are being used to their potential for dealing with issues that are now regulated by law.

General observations in the final section of the Dunlop report revisit the theme of diversity in worker-management relations across firms and industries, and emphasize the interdependence of the issues addressed in the report. The Commission concludes there is mismatch between parts of the legal framework regulating employment and the emerging workplace practices necessary for employers to be competitive and to meet workers’ needs. It strongly suggests that reduction of workplace conflicts will be a primary aim of recommendations to be offered in the future.

In conclusion, the Dunlop Commission Report reviewed many crucial issues between workers and management within the American employment arena. The report’s focus on changing paradigms within the workplace gave rise to many new concepts in regards to both solutions and further research.

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