Unions and Contemporary Innovations in Work Organization, Compensation, and Employee Participation

The 1980s have been a decade of experimentation in work organization, compensation systems, and labor-management relations. These experiments represent efforts to increase productivity and improve firm financial performance. Many of these innovations seek to tap worker knowledge and energy in the service of these goals.

It is the purpose of this paper to describe the nature of these efforts, and to document their growth and significance in both the union and nonunion sectors. In doing so, we make the case that on balance U.S. unions have not been hindrances to innovations in the management of human resources, but in the 1980s have facilitated the implementation and healthy functioning of such programs. It’s not that changes in work organization or compensation are always appropriate or desirable; elsewhere we discuss why workers and their labor organizations have sometimes opposed programs which undermined collective bargaining, excessively speeded-up production, or were otherwise detrimental (Eaton and Voos 1989). It appears from the evidence discussed here, however, that such opposition has not resulted in a significantly lower quantity of innovation in the union sector, but instead shaped programs to meet worker as well as corporate goals.

We also argue that contemporary union support for innovative work practices is consistent with a long tradition of productivity bargaining in this country in which unions have agreed to productivity enhancing technologies and methods while protecting the economic security of members. Traditional union protections lay the groundwork for more extensive forms of genuine participation with a greater potential for improved work methods and increased productivity.

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