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.