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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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What Do Nonunions Do?
What Should We Do About Them?

Daphne Gottlieb Taras, University of Calgary and Bruce E. Kaufman, Georgia State University
Task Force Working Paper #WP14
Prepared for the May 25-26, 1999, conference
“Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Institutions of Representation”

September 1, 1999

Why Is Consensus Difficult to Achieve?

Nonunion representation issues bring to the forefront a smouldering tension between industrial relations and human resource management. The paradigms of industrial relations are based on worksite justice, the exercise of power and authority, the existence of a plurality of interests, the negotiation of relationships. The goals of human resource management are incorporating workers into the enterprise with a minimum of discord and an enhancement of productivity. HRM rhetoric permeates the discussion of nonunion representation by its advocates. Opponents see NERPs as a company-initiated subterfuge to pacify and deceive workers who might otherwise seek union representation. They describe NERPs as “brittle” and unions as “durable.” Proponents see plans as mechanisms to foster genuine labor-management harmony. To them, NERPs are “cooperative” while unions are “adversarial.”

According to managers who practice nonunion representation, who initiate, guide, and contribute to NERPs, their ultimate objective is the achievement of a singularity of purpose between workers and managers for the good of the common enterprise. This is the apotheosis of human resource practice, which attempts to use recruitment, selection, training, compensation, and appraisal techniques, among other vehicles, to align workers into the corporation. NERP is a vehicle used by companies to achieve a mutuality of interests. It is a “win-win” scenario. It is the royal jelly of the human resource lexicon, since it involves employees in the larger enterprise, it engages their talents, it demonstrates that management is gracious in its ability to inspire workers and hear them. It is a institutionalized mechanism for management to “walk the talk” when it makes the claim that employees matter.

By contrast, when NERPs are examined through the industrial relations lens, the flaws of NERPs are starkly exposed. Industrial relations scholars assume that the interests of workers and employers are different, although they can be peacefully accommodated through the use of conflict resolution techniques. This pluralistic view of the workplace raises issues of power, of bargaining and confrontation, of the articulation of separate agendas. Qualms surface about the capacity of NERPs to produce “win-win” outcomes. Surely, some issues require traditional bargaining approaches, and NER fails to adequately arm workers with the power and tools necessary to achieve optimal outcomes from their perspective. This is particularly so in the US, where the labor law was drafted to constrain bilateral dealings regarding wages and employment conditions, but even in countries that permit greater worker-manager interaction, workers have few resources and lack access to professionals outside the firm. Whatever satisfaction workers can achieve from NERPs is granted to them by management fiat. If there is genuine attempt at collective bargaining, the NERP is hopelessly flawed.

Four competing perspectives might help clarify the nature of the controversy. They need not be mutually exclusive, and we present them as separable for clarity only. The first picture involves a continuum. When NERPs is spoken of as a forum for collective action and voice, it becomes tempting to conceptualize the industrial relations landscape as a continuum from no representation whatever, a strict individual rights regime, through the intermediate NERP forms, ultimately ending in strong national unions and full immersion into collective action. Arising from this view is the notion that NERPs can be used as an organizing strategy by unions, particularly where nonunion plans do not satisfy worker desire for influence. The Canadian practice in the energy sector of unions cooperating with NERPs and organizing them with affiliation agreements is an excellent union-organizing model that arises from the continuum position (Basken). Often we examine collective action as though it were a question involving degree or amount, just as we visualize a gas tank from empty to full. Although we occasionally slip into this mode by force of habit, we believe that the continuum model is flawed because it ignores the multi dimensionality of nonunion representation. NERPs are not usually established by management in order to give workers a vehicle for collective expression, and workers do not usually expect them to serve this purpose. To depict them as though this was their function is incorrect.

The second conception is of separate domains. There is a large body of evidence from the many case studies in our book that NERPs are created for reasons other than management’s belief in collective rights. NERPs are used to align workers with managerial objectives. According to this view, the raison d’etre of NERPs is workforce unity, and the range of issues revolves around firm imperatives such as production, quality, and process improvement. By contrast, unions are motivated by another vision entirely, of representing the interests of workers when they are different than those of the firm. As Nelson points out, “most unions and company unions occupied separate industrial spheres, rarely competing or even addressing the same issues.” Any overlap of activities between NERPs and unions is unintentional. Kaufman makes this position most forcefully in his work.

The third vision is one of complementarity. Union and nonunion systems develop interdependencies. Chaykowski’s study of the National Joint Council system in Canada (a post-World War II nonunion variant of the British Whitley plan for government employees) is enlightening. Although the natural tendency might be to view the NJC and the public sector unions as competitors, Chaykowski’s surprising conclusion was that for a while the two systems coexisted and over time became complementary. This adds credence to the notion that these systems are not directly substitutable, but are situated in separate domains, and interactions between them help each refine and focus on areas of special competency. Taras (1997) has argued that unions and NER together stabilize the entire petroleum industry. Unions have an easier time policing economic conditions throughout an industry in which nonunion companies match wages. Sometimes it is the nonunion company that sets the pattern of higher wages for the firm, which the union then spreads throughout the industry via collective bargaining. Where NERPs work well, they have spillover benefits onto unionized sites: they introduce a more cooperative approach, raise wage rates, and allow employees greater voice and influence at their worksites. Boone’s description of Imperial Oil’s NERP shows that companies which run effective nonunion representation forums are not the types of companies that would be easy to unionize anyway, since there are few inducements to unionize. Economic reasons to unionize are eliminated, and often the noneconomic triggers (e.g., unsatisfactory supervision and lack of worksite justice) are minimized. The likelihood of successful union organizing is poor. But the union can use advances in nonunion settings to leverage its power when dealing with unionized firms. And the relationship flows the other way as well, with managers investigating the terms and conditions available to unionized employees in the industry, and unilaterally matching them in order to sustain nonunion representation and high involvement practices.

The fourth perspective is substitution. According to this view, nonunion representation is a union avoidance mechanism, either by intent or effect. Forums are dominated by management. Workers are programmed to avoid unions both for fear of reprisal, however subtle, and by the use of sound management practices that render unions unattractive. There was sound reason for the development of the substitution perspective in the US. In the early 1930s, with the passage of NIRA, companies quickly mobilized an anti-union offensive using NERPs as the principal weapon. Even in Canada, there were many examples of companies using NERPs as shields against union organizing in the 1940s. Given the spectacular rise of NERPs for union avoidance objectives, it was reasonable that American union leaders begged legislators to ban this form of employee representation in the Wagner Act. The AFL-CIO has continued this approach, arguing that “the ultimate goal [of NER] is... to stifle legitimate worker voice and to stave off genuine worker organization” (AFL-CIO Press Release 22 Feb. 1995, p. 1; also see Hiatt and Gold). It is too risky for a weakened labor movement to face yet another tactic in the anti-union arsenal. The first threat to unions is that NERPs are so easily subverted to serve a union avoidance function. NERPs deliver captive audiences to management for the purpose of instilling anti-union messages, they provide sensing forums for management to assess union proneness and take remedial action, and they socialize workers to see the world through management eyes. The second threat to unions operates at more of a macro level. NER neither institutionalizes worker activism within the context of political action and social change nor provides the mechanisms for diffusion from firm to firm. In North America, only unions have these functions. But NERPs give workers a sufficient taste of voice that they become pacified and fail to see themselves as part of a larger social force.

Our final comment on the controversy over NERPs is that while we are in desperate need for empirical studies on the effects of NERPs, this is an area of study fraught with methodological difficulties. Comparing union and NERP achievements is problematic. To some extent, NERPs achieved significant gains because they attained greater penetration within firms at the forefront of progressive management strategies. Though it is indisputable that NERPs historically resulted in more sanitary and safe working conditions, more professionalism among personnel functions, and a greater attention to due process in worksite disputes, as well as relatively high wages and benefits, it should be noted that NERPs were incorporated into the practices of firms that were most proactive in their treatment of employees. It was not the NERP per se that delivered advances to employees, but rather, the underlying management attitude. By contrast, unions were not invited into firms, were met with grudging acceptance at best, and had a tough road to hoe when it came to achieving any victories. NERPs and unions might be proxy variables for other measures, such as managerial attitudes towards workers, degree of human resource innovation of the firm, and so on. And to fail to compare NERPs with unions neglects the notion that a high tide raises all ships: that some NERP successes and failures arise from the same economic and political environment that affects unions. When NERPs fail because they claw back wages and benefits, likely unions are suffering from concessionary bargaining demands as well. When NERPs achieve breakthroughs in the wage envelope, unions cannot be far behind.

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