UAW: Loosening the Chains

The following is an interview with Irving Bluestone, conducted on February 7. Bluestone is a Vice-President of the International United Auto Workers union [UAW] and director of the UAW General Motors [GM] Department. He has played a leading role in the introduction of Quality of Work Life Programs [QWL] in GM plants. A form of industrial democracy, these programs aim to give workers greater control over decisions concerning the work process on the shop-floor. UAW's programs represent the first effort by a major union to introduce some measure of shop-floor democracy on a large scale in the United States.

Q. What concerns about existing work organization motivated the UAW to consider the question of shop floor participation?

A. The UAW as a whole is not on this wavelength totally. There are differences of opinion within the union. I happen to be strongly in favor of moving in this direction, and therefore have taken the lead in the GM section of the union.

Fundamentally it boils down to what I view to be a basic change that is necessary in work organization and work structure. Management must come to the realization that what it has been doing for the past seven decades, adhering to the principles of scientific management espoused by Frederick Taylor, is no longer as applicable as it used to be. Workers are not willing to accept the authoritarianism of the workplace as was true a generation or two ago. They're much better educated by at least four years of education coming into the plant. Times and circumstances have changed also in the sense that the educational process challenges authority. I think that's fine; that's how it should be.

But of course it has its impact on plant operations.

In addition to that, management must certainly come to the realization that they don't own all of the brains in the world in deciding how a plant should be operated. I distinguish between participation in decision-making by the workers in managing the enterprise and managing the job. We're a long way in this country from workers participating in managing the enterprise per se, but I think we're getting much closer to the other aspect of it--managing the job.

Q. Implicit in what you say is a belief that these alternative ways of organizing work--with far more worker participation in decision-making within the enterprise--can succeed. What's your evidence?

A. As you know, probably, there have been many many experiments under way in this country me of which have failed, some of which show promise of success. The one thing about all of them is that they say, 'go slow.' You don't see results overnight and it would be a mistake to anticipate getting results overnight. In GM corporation where we've been taking the lead in the automobile industry in introducing such programs, we've had some pretty good success. Local unions seem enamoured of QWL programs where they've had a taste of introducing and initiating them. There is basic support being given to the idea by the top level executives of GM. We operate on certain basic principles which the corporation accepts: one, the introduction of any such program shall not increase the work pace of the workers; two, the program will not result in the layoff of any workers by reason of the program and three, that the agreements we have reached with the corporation are inviolate. Once there is acceptance of these three basic principles, then the workers and the union are far more willing to accept the idea and try to implement it. Management, on the other hand, is instructed by the corporation, in effect, that if it is interested solely in increasing productivity, forget about it. Workers see through that immediately. Even the corporation will not approach a QWL program on that basis. If, however, there are results which are of common interest to both the workers and the union on the one hand and the company on the other, that's fine. Such as one, reductions in absenteeism, two, improvement in the quality of the product three, reduced labor turnover four, less discipline in the plant, and five, fewer grievances because complaints are settled right when they arise rather than going through an extended procedure--all of these obviously are of common interest and if we achieve them then both management and the union and the workers have something to gain.

Q. Could you distingutsh job enlargement from actual worker participation in making decisions about the work process on the level of the shop--both from the point of view of your union and from the point of view of management and the corporation?

A. Job enlargement, until a few years ago, was unfortunately used by many people as a substitute for what we call quality of work life improvement, which is a much broader idea. Job enlargement is simple the imposition by management of a process whereby workers perform more operations over a longer period of time. It's normally imposed by the engineers on the workers--the workers don't really participate in making that kind of decision. If job enlargement is to be introduced it should be introduced because the workers say this makes sense to us. In most instances that you read about, job enlargement is simply an idea which came from management.

Job enlargement, per se, is simply one of the tools that may be used in the development of a QWL program.

Q. Could you be a little more specific about what you conceive of as going into a QWL program?

A. There's no sense in even attempting to introduce such a program unless there is a relationship of mutual respect between the union and the management. Once you have achieved that--which means a relationship in which the parties are relating to each other in the resolution of problems instead of finding out how they can screw each other, so to speak--then you can began to introduce a QWL program. In its essence, this means that workers are, in fact, participating in the decision-making process. There are very many ways in which to do this, and it must emanate from the bottom up; its got to come from the workers and the line foremen rather than being imposed from the top down. At GM for instance, there is no program, in fact, which has been brought into being by reason of the national office of GM and the national office of the union saying, 'here's how you're going to do it.' As far as we're concerned that's not democratizing the workplace.

First we must convince the local management and local union that they ought to try something, then, we let representatives get together to see what they can dream up and begin involving the workers on only a voluntary basis. At that point there's no end to the ingenuity of people to decide what they want to do--all the way from deciding what color they want their machinery painted, to laying out a plant, to laying out an operation, to developing the methods, means and processes of manufacturing.

The key is the goal of management cooperation with the workers in order to see to it that the workers have input and have more to say about what goes on in the shop rather than being simple an adjunct of the tools as workers on assembly lines are, or workers on automated equipment are.

Q. Could you be specific with regard to what results you have found in your efforts with GM concerning productivity, worker satisfaction, and both management and worker desire to continue the programs or to terminate them?

A. I would say that we are not concerned primarily with productivity increases. In fact, however, I think they occur by means of eliminating retarding factors to increasing productivity such as poor quality, which requires more repairs and which represents more scrap, and so on. Let me give you a concrete example.

Back in 1973, we initiated a very small program in one of the assembly plants in GM, where, in the glass installation area, scrap was at a horrible rate, and repairs were at an impossible rate. Half the people in that particular area--only about 30 people as I recall--had suffered some kind of disciplinary measure against them by management in the previous six months; absenteeism was very high, labor turnover was bad. We asked the workers whether they would volunteer to undertake a program. We said, 'Obviously, what's happening here is no damn good.' Fortunately, practically all of the workers volunteered.

We asked them to figure out, among themselves, with a foreman, how they wanted the job done, instead of management telling them how to do it. In a period of seven or eight months scrap was way down, repairs were way down, absenteeism was down, turnover was down, nobody had been disciplined. There was a good feeling among the workers.

Q. Given results like that how do you explain the general union reluctance in this country to even begin the kind of experiments which you have pursued?

A. Union leaders are beginning to change their minds. There's more interest being expressed now; there's a greater willingness to enter into experiments. By and large, union resistance relates to, one, a skepticism about management's goals and purposes--a fear that this is simply a gimmick on the part of the management to take advantage of the workers, and two, a fear that if the workers feel that they have a satisfactory life at work, there will be an erosion of loyalty to the union. I challenge both those arguments.

I think that since the union is a 50-50 partner in the development and implementation of the program, I have no concerns about it being a gimmick. It's for real. Secondly, experience indicates that where the programs are in effect, the workers seem to have a greater loyalty rather than a lesser loyalty, to the union, although I must say, also, that they have a greater respect for the management--as the case should be where the management is treating them as adults.

Too often, QWL is written up as the workers' co-operating with the management to do something for the management. It's quite the contrary. It's the management moving towards the workers and surrendering certain prerogatives which management has historically enjoyed. In every labor contract there is a management rights clause which ways, in effect, that the methods, means and processes of manufacture are solely and exclusively the right of management. It's not easy to get plant managers, superintendents, or foremen to agree to surrender some of those rights to the workers. They are fearful that there will be an erosion of their authority within the plant.

Q. Earlier, you soft-pedalled the question of productivity, emphasizing that QWL programs should be seen as management efforts to help workers improve the quality of their work lives. But it seems that if, indeed, these programs are distasteful to management then the question of productivity may be very important. Increased productivity may be the primary reason that management may be willing to have its prerogatives encroached upon.

A. If as a result of the program the scrap rate is down and the repair rate is down this reduces unit costs. If there is lower absenteeism, so that replacements aren't as necessary, it reduces costs. If labor turnover is reduced, it reduces costs. If there is less discipline taken against employees it reduces costs. If your grievance procedure is working so that your complaints are handled quickly, it reduces costs.

It's obvious that GM is happy with our successful programs because the top-level executives are gung-ho in favor of it.

I might say, there are three basic paths, as I see it, which collective bargaining is following. The normal hard-boiled adversarial collective bargaining which takes place over wages, benefits, working conditions, etc., is going to continue. We'll be in negotiation with GM in July, and we're going to fight like tigers for a good contract. And we may have a strike. Who knows? Simultaneously, there are certain programs that we have to fight very hard to get management to agree to. But once they have agreed, we establish joint, co-operative means of implementing them, like health and safety programs.

But there's a third path and that's what I call the QWL approach. Say you were management and I were the union, and I had a demand to improve the quality of work life. The deadline for a contract is midnight, otherwise there'll be a strike. At two minutes to 12 you say, 'I give up, I'll give you the demand--tell me what you want me to do.' I couldn't tell you, because a QWL program isn't conducive to that kind of collective bargaining process. It has to be built from the ground up, based upon people putting their minds together to do it. QWL programs, joint co-operative programs resulting from hard bargaining, and the adversarial relationship that normally grew between parties in the collective bargaining relationship are following simultaneous paths and I don't see any contradiction. This is what we're doing at GM.