American workers have always sought better wages and job security. Years ago they were just "employees at-will," subject to the whims of their employers. They toiled in difficult working conditions and feared the day when their employers might fire them.
Workers eventually turned to unions for job security and improved conditions. Bolstered by the National Labor Relations Act, which prevented discrimination against employees because of union activity, unions became the bargaining agents for millions of workers. By the end of World War II, it looked as if we would become a nation of unionized employees.
But the promises of unionism were never fulfilled. In the name of job security, unions compelled employers to accept inflexible, unproductive work rules. Unions spoke angrily and carried a big "strike" stick.
They drove employers to pay ever-higher wages and contributed to an adversarial management-labor relationship, but they did not assist in improving productivity.
Unions gradually became anachronistic institutions, preaching the same 1930s message while the nature of work and the work force changed. Unions came to be perceived as self-serving institutions tainted by criminal indictments and prosecutions.
Unions also became less relevant as an increasing number of state and federal laws were enacted to protect workers. Various laws now regulate minimum wages, overtime, pension plans, work-place safety, Social Security and the like. Many of those regulations contain provisions making it unlawful for employers to terminate employees who report violations.
While those laws made work safer and more secure, state court decisions have built a new bulwark around individual employees over the last 15 years. Those courts have further limited the "at-will" concept of employment by allowing terminated employees to file suits against their former employers for "wrongful discharge."
Some employees have succeeded in these lawsuits by alleging that employers violated public policy because they fired them for serving on a jury, taking time off to vote, or -- blowing the whistle on a health violation.
Many courts also have recognized implied contractual theories of wrongful discharge. In such cases employers were found to have made and subsequently broken binding, written or oral "promises" of employment.
Still, wrongful discharge actions, because they are undertaken by individuals, can give only the most limited job security to the masses of working people.
Indeed, neither union bullying, statutes nor state court actions will provide American workers the job security for which we all struggle. Such security will be achieved only after both employers and employees deal successfully with two of the most vital economic issues of our times: international competition and productivity.
We all know that international competition has put American industry on the spot. Our nation is swamped with imports in almost every field of production.
Japan is one of our fiercest competitors, producing top quality products, while paying its employees lower wages than comparable American workers receive. Yet labor relations in Japan are excellent compared with those in America. Japanese workers have a high degree of company loyalty, and Japanese management regards its obligations to them as a top priority.
It is the very need to compete with Japan and other productive, energetic nations that ultimately will force American industry to protect its employees and provide better job security.
American industry will become a competitive leader in the international marketplace only when it builds cooperative partnerships of labor, supervisors and management. Employers who see the "writing on the wall" will realize that they have to treat their employees fairly and work with them to harness their energies to meet the competition.
American managers must re-examine their methods. Management must communicate effectively with employees, encourage suggestions and participation, adequately train supervisors in interpersonal relations and introduce problem-solving mechanisms in which employees have confidence. Under such circumstances, employers would find that their employees are eager to solve problems in the workplace.
The American-managed Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., is an example of a company that has built a working partnership of labor and management. The company trains its workers to do a number of jobs, involves them in decisions and gives them responsibility for the quality of the product at every level. The Nissan employees have shown no interest in unionizing, and labor relations are harmonious.
This cooperative approach may have been born out of necessity, but it will be cooperation, rather than wrongful discharge actions, government regulations or union muscle, that will be the source of employee protections in the future.
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