October, 2000, Vol. 123, No. 10
A third way
World labor market trends
Book reviews from past issues
A third way
Nonunion Employee Representation:
History, Contemporary Practice, and Policy. Edited by Bruce Kaufman and Daphne Taras. Armonk, NY, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2000, 576 pp. $87.95.
Today, employees have two approaches in dealing with management on matters of wages, benefits, and working conditions. They can approach management as individuals and hope to gain a hearing for their concerns. If that approach fails, they can simply accept their fate or pursue the issue through litigation as an individual. Such litigation may be popular, but using the courts to resolve grievances can be an expensive and time-consuming process for employers and employees.
The other approach is to organize as a group and bargain collectively. Latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that only 13.9 percent of the workforce were members of unions. While it is legally possible for most employees to choose representation through collective bargaining, in reality relatively few have opted to resolve their grievances in that manner. It is possible that fewer of today’s employees choose union representation because they are happier with their working conditions than in the past. It is also possible that workers simply do not consider traditional labor organizations to be a viable solution for their workplace problems.
In the United States, there once was another choice for employees. Until passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, workers could express themselves through nonunion employee representation [NER]. In a NER, workers meet with managers in an employer-created group to jointly consider relevant employee-related issues. A NER might take several forms, ranging from a worker council to a so-called company union. In their book, Nonunion Employee Representation, Bruce Kaufman and Daphne Taras re-ignite the discussion of this option that is currently illegal in the United States but still practiced in other countries such as Canada.
Of course, they are not the first to call for reconsideration of the ban on NER. The modern discussion of allowing management-controlled employee councils erupted in 1992, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Electromation’s employee committee constituted an unfair labor practice by declaring it a company-created labor organization. This ruling was followed by the unsuccessful attempt in 1996 to pass legislation in Congress known as the Teamwork for Employees and Management [TEAM] Act. After those two events, very little has been said about nonunion employee representation until publication of this new work.
Through a series of essays by a variety of writers, the two professors show the history, theory and practice of various NERs in the United States and Canada. The first 100 pages of the book are spent cataloging the history of nonunion employee representation in the United States and Canada, followed by pages of theory and a thorough discussion of contemporary practice in other parts of the world. Beyond the essays authored entirely or in part by the editors, other essays are provided by academics from a variety of universities in the United States, Canada, England, Germany, and Japan. Much of the work is devoted to showing the advantage of NER in various cultures and placing the NLRB’s ban in its historical context.
These sections are followed by almost 75 pages devoted to practitioner commentaries by labor relations practitioners and several labor attorneys, as well as employees who have participated in employer-employee councils. These authors share their personal experiences with nonunion employee representation. Two individuals concerned with labor policy in the United States and Canada give their perspective in the final essays in the book. In their concluding chapter, Kaufman and Taras outline their arguments for repeal of the NER ban. They believe the special situation that existed when the Wagner Act was enacted is no longer applicable and suggest that NER is especially valuable in today’s labor environment.
While the two editors indicate in their own essays their preference for repeal of the present ban on NER, they do include essays by authors who adamantly oppose their view. Jonathon Hiatt and Laurence Gold make an energetic argument against proposals such as TEAM. The General Counsel and Assistant General Counsel for the AFL-CIO believe that creation of employer-established workplace organizations would be one more barrier to true employee representation. Reg Basken, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union in Canada also expresses his concerns with allowing so-called "company" (or as he calls them, "donkey") unions in the United States. Rather than opposing the repeal of the ban on NER, he argues that such repeal should be tied to elimination of right-to-work laws in the United States.
Perhaps because so little has been written lately on this subject, the editors felt it necessary to include so much material in one volume. At 576 pages, the book includes 18 articles and 12 case studies. It attempts to serve as both a single-volume reference work on the subject and as an advocate for reconsideration of NER by policymakers. Although not technically difficult to understand, the amount of content might be a bit daunting to the casual reader and the nonacademic. Readers may wish to read the chapters selectively based on their personal interests in matters of labor history, contemporary labor policy and so on.
As the editors point out in their conclusion, current labor theory dictates that high performance workplaces require high levels of employee involvement in decisions affecting the firm. By outlawing nonunion employee representation in 1935, Congress limited employee choices as to the proper manner of that involvement. The book raises an interesting issue as to whether the American workforce still needs legislative protection from this form of employer-employee cooperation in determining the fundamental issues in the workplace.
Bureau of Labor Statistics
World labor market trends
Key Indicators of the Labor Market.
Geneva, International Labor Organization, 1999, 600 pp. $99.50, paper; $99.50, CD-ROM; $180, print and CD set. Available in the United States from ILO Publications Center, Waldorf, MD 20604-0753.
The International Labor Organization’s Key Indicators of the Labor Market not only allows a snapshot look at the labor market situation across approximately 240 countries, areas, and territories, but also allows the comparison of trends in these places. Eighteen indicators are grouped into seven subject areas: participation in the world of work; employment indicators; unemployment, underemployment and inactivity indicators; an educational attainment and illiteracy indicator; wage and labor costs indicators; labor productivity and unit labor cost indicators; and poverty and income distribution indicators. Each indicator is presented along with descriptive text that gives some guidance on how it might be used.
The primary sources for the book are other international repositories of information. In principle, the diligent analysts could reproduce Key Indicators from these sources. But that would be a big task requiring a number of subtle technical judgments. The added value of the book is that by processing and repackaging the information, and providing expert guidance on issues related to using it, Key Indicators has made this information accessible to the majority of analysts who have neither the time, the connections, nor the inclination to get and use it in its less refined form.
In my view, Key Indicators has two particular strengths. The first is that it is more than just a book. It also comes on CD-ROM. The CD not only provides the exact same information as the book, it provides even more, and it allows analysts freer range in manipulating the information according to their needs. The book’s CD-ROM is generally easier to use than others I have tried. Of particular note are the links it provides to the book’s website and other sites of interest, and the fact that there is an immediate way of knowing how much and where the information is available. The book’s information is also presented in a separate paper volume of country profiles, so users interested in an immediate statistical profile of a certain country’s labor market have one just at their fingertips.
Key Indicators’ other strength is the guidance it provides on information comparability across countries and over time. With some work, a careful analyst could divide information for a particular indicator across countries into more or less comparable groups and restrict or appropriately qualify analysis according to this distinction. But even though the book is already vastly better on giving guidance about international comparability than many other repositories, I still want more. For instance, it would be very useful if future versions of the CD-ROM allowed users to select information on the basis of some pre-programmed comparability criteria, in much the same way that they can now select information on characteristics such as gender, age group, geographical location and so forth.
My one criticism of Key Indicators is that the examples of analyses that can be carried out are written in a way that suggests that rather conclusive answers are possible using only the book’s information. For example, in its analysis of its relationship between labor force participation rates and economic development, there is a conclusive explanation of the relationship as related to shifts from agriculture to urban activities and increasing relative earnings of prime-age male workers. I have no particular quarrel with the analysis or its conclusion; I wish simply to point out that sources of information other than the book must have been drawn upon to support it. Key Indicators information can provide good indicators of plausible hypotheses and where to look for answers, but more conclusive analyses can come only from more in-depth sources of information.
One source of information to carry out a more in-depth analysis would be the microdata (household or establishment level) from which the indicators ultimately have been tabulated. The book’s website already contains contact information and some links to national statistical sources. It would be quite a useful tool to researchers if these links could be expanded to include links to the original microdata and documentation for using it. All the better if the Key Indicators team could provide a common interface for accessing this information.
With its very first edition, the book already provides an indispensable tool to analysts seeking a look at major trends in the world’s labor markets. The skeleton of a network to the information behind these trends also has been built. Researchers, policy analysts, and the policy makers and others whom they inform should all benefit from the knowledge contained in this book. We should all say thank you.
—Kenneth A. Swinnerton
Bureau of International Labor Affairs
U.S. Department of Labor
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