March 2004, Vol. 127, No. 3
Labor market changes
Book reviews from past issues
Labor market changes
Working In America: A Blueprint for the New Labor Market. By Paul Osterman, Thomas A. Kochan, Richard M. Locke, and Michael Piore. Cambridge, MA, and London, The MIT Press, 2001, 229 pp., $35/cloth.
The authors of Working in America—Paul Osterman, Thomas A. Kochan, Richard M. Locke, and Michael J. Piore—begin the book by announcing their attempt to present a coherent framework for consideration of recent changes in the labor market and the implication of these changes for public policy. They have succeeded.
Working in America represents almost 3 years of study and deliberation by the authors—all at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and a Task Force comprising 25 persons (including the authors) from academia, labor, and management working with the support of the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. The authors note that the book is not a report of the Task Force, nor does it represent unanimity among the participants or the persons who appeared before it at workshops and other forums.
"Tracing the Shifting Labor Market," summarizes the changes in the world of work that have produced a disconnect between old labor market policies and institutions and the current reality. These include changes in who is working, how work is performed, the increasing importance of skills and learning, the shifts in workplace regulation as between labor organizations and government, and the persistence of low-wage labor markets. Rather than serve as a steppingstone to more responsible, better-paid positions, low-wage jobs have become a dead end for many workers. This is a primary cause of the persistent income gap that the authors and many others find so troubling.
"The Corporation in the Labor Market" reviews the evolving role of employers. Companies may no longer be highly integrated concerns that provide nearly lifetime employment and significant benefits. Instead, they may have pared down to their core competencies; they compete strenuously for knowledge workers, outsource readily, and exploit the benefits of globalization. Here, the authors briefly discuss a number of companies, including Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies, Kodak, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines. According to the authors, these comparisons "illustrate the challenges that many established American companies are facing as they seek to balance the competing claims of adapting to a new market environment and maintaining their commitments to their existing work forces."
In addition, some companies and industries have turned to labor-management partnerships, with somewhat mixed success, in addressing labor market problems and the need to adopt new business models. Pertinent examples cited include San Francisco Hotels and the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employee union, Saturn and the United Auto Workers, and Xerox and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Technical Employees. Based on this review the authors conclude that individual firm—and even union-management—efforts will need to be supplemented by community, labor-market, and industry-wide institutional innovations.
Echoing the concerns of many thinkers, the authors address the issue of worker voice and new methods for implementing it in the context of the declining strength of unions, the traditional vehicle for expressing worker concerns in the workplace. Rather than proposing whole new means of expression, the authors suggest adaptive union strategies for enhancing worker voice in four segments of the labor market: industrial and craft sectors, professionals and managers, contingent workers, and those trapped in low-income sectors. In the first group, unions such as the Communications Workers of America have adopted various strategies to serve workers, including the adoption of associational memberships in areas where representational rights have not penetrated. Among professional workers, the Committee of Interns and Residents began as a means of providing collective action to doctors still in the formal years of their education. After joining with other groups as the National Doctors’ Alliance under the aegis of the Service Employees International Union, the Committee has sought to represent post-resident physicians. At the other economic extreme, the SEIU has begun successfully to penetrate homecare workers—one of the most difficult groups of low-income workers to represent because they work in clients’ homes. Many are minorities or immigrants, and most are mothers caring for children.
Community organizing groups have mounted living-wage campaigns around the country, and the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Committees have built coalitions with other organizations to provide community-based strands in the new networks necessary to address the problem of giving voice to low-wage and low-skill workers. Creative new institutions include the Cleveland Jobs and Workforce Initiative, a business-based effort, and the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership—a consortium of labor, business and public partners that promotes union-management communications on planning for workforce needs; the development of skills, standards, and related training; and the sharing of best practices. The authors conclude that next-generation unions, to address the problem of the new labor market as well as to represent mobile professionals and labor’s original core constituency successfully, "…will have to expand the ways they recruit and train members…[as well,] substantial changes in labor law will be needed to make it possible for unions to play these different roles effectively…[and] American management culture will have to change significantly to accept the simple idea that workers should have the same freedom of association at work as they have in civil society. The last may the biggest hurdle."
The authors call for recasting the role of government. They maintain that the Federal Government should be a catalyst for changes such as more flexibility in unemployment insurance and in the tax code, increasing portability of benefits, and enhancing the climate for job training. The authors foresee rebuilding the institutional capacity of employee groups to assist in the regulation of the workplace—for example, as in the Voluntary Protection Program under OSHA. Many such steps, the authors note, can be taken without legislative action: "they require only clear vision on the part of the president, the secretary of labor, and the agencies involved."
Despite the examples of employee-employer-community cooperation noted above, the authors cite the ongoing impasse over labor law reform as clouding the ability of parties to work together in crucial areas outside the sphere of collective bargaining. Changes in the law, accordingly, are necessary to address the overarching labor market developments that are this volume’s raison d’etre. The authors urge a return to the "first principles" of the National Labor Relations Act, which were premised on the right of workers to decide whether to be represented by a union or association. One major issue that should be revisited, in the authors’ view, is the artificial boundary between managers and employees created by the exclusion of supervisors from collective bargaining rights by the Act’s Taft-Hartley amendments. They cite the example of the nursing profession, where similar duties may be performed by supervisors and rank-and-file workers.
In this regard the National Labor Relations Board has recently solicited and received briefs in three cases involving nurses. The Board sought input on a number of points that parallel the authors’ concerns on worker voice, including whether there are tensions between the coverage of professional employees and the exclusion of supervisors, and whether the law can be interpreted to take account of the development of self-regulating work teams and other workplace changes. In addition, the NLRB asked parties to comment on specific indicia of supervisory status, such as whether the workers exercise independent judgment in the performance of their duties.
The authors also call into question the continued usefulness of the Act’s distinction between mandatory and nonmandatory subjects of bargaining—as well as the arguably artificial limits placed on employee participation by section 8(a)(3) of the statute, which raises doubts about the lawfulness of employee workplace committees. Other changes are necessary to accommodate temporary workers, independent contractors, and other types of jobs that reflect the increasing mobility of the workforce.
The authors express some skepticism that the comprehensive changes needed can be achieved "in today’s ideologically polarized environment." Yet they view piecemeal changes as both undesirable and unobtainable, because such stand-alone changes would likely be seen as victories for one side or the other. This would widen the chasm between unions and management rather than helping to bridge the gap.
Working in America is a clear call for vision and leadership in crafting a more effective and equitable labor market and a voice for workers. If no one heeds this call, the disconnect between America’s workplace promises and its reality will become even sharper.
—Joy K. Reynolds
formerly with the
U.S. Department of Labor
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