Union Strategy for Skilled Work and Technological Change
(page 1 of 2)
By Mike Parker
about the fact that technology creates new, skilled jobs while it
destroys and de-skills others. Yet the union movement has little
strategy for organizing in the fast growing new technology areas
where workers may consider themselves professionals, not workers.
In large part this stems from weak and self-defeating strategies
for dealing with skill issues in already unionized areas, where
lean production techniques are reorganizing the workplace.
If the labor
movement is to survive technological change and lean-work reorganization
schemes, we must address the issues of skilled work, particularly
training, how management organizes work, and the relationship between
skilled workers and the rest of the labor movement. This latter
has long been a thorny area. All too often skilled workers harbor
the most racist, sexist, elitist, and pro-business attitudes in
the labor movement. But skilled work can also be a stronghold of
The issues surrounding
skill are critical to the labor movement for four kinds of reasons:
What traditionally has been called "skilled work" has
usually meant better jobs for workers. Not only do skilled jobs
pay more, but generally they give the worker more control, more
ability to vary the pace of work, more creativity, greater job security
and marketability, more respect from management, and more power
in dealing with management.
Lean production is the set of methods, pioneered in Japan but now
widespread worldwide, that attempts systematically to produce goods
or services with fewer workers through a fine-tuned combination
of speedup, work standardization, and deliberate scrimping on resources
(just-in-time inventory and delivery systems are emblematic of the
system). This system was popularly described--and lauded--in the
MIT study The Machine That Changed the World.
Performance Workplace" concept attempts to mix the lean production
fundamentals with a pro-union organization. Advocates argue that
the system needs highly skilled workers to achieve high productivity.
With such high productivity, workers can gain a share of the benefits
in the form of high wages, good working conditions and job security.
By achieving these for the members, the union becomes stronger.
The situation is supposed to be "win-win" for management
and labor. Indeed, some unions are so enamored of this approach
that they offer to teach management how to introduce such systems.
(International Association of Machinists, 1997)
lean production's perspective on skill actually undermines union
power. The system claims to promote teamwork and enrich jobs. But
in the auto industry, for example, collaboration among skilled workers
is nothing new. Skilled workers have frequently worked together,
both within and across trades, to plan and execute their own work
and cooperate in doing very complex projects. Ironically, the contracting
out, the attempts to program work minutely , the attempts to intensify
the work through "broadbanding" and the phony team structures--all
characteristic of lean production--instead destroy some of the best
jobs there are.
Many of the jobs associated with new technology and the information
age are potential growth areas for unions. In previous decades necessity
forced teachers' and government workers' associations to act like
unions and become unions. So today "professionals" are
finding that corporations regard them as disposable workers even
if they are computer programmers, pilots, engineers, data analysts,
trainers, or medical workers. For instance, temporary computer programmers
working for Microsoft make more than $27 an hour but lack benefits
or guaranteed jobs. The state of Washington just gave them a reason
to organize, ruling that they will help keep Microsoft competitive
by also foregoing overtime premium pay after eight hours.
That the conditions
needed for organizing are ripening can also be seen in the popularity
of Dilbert, the cartoon engineer. But organizing these workers will
require going beyond wages and benefits, to deal with skill, training,
and work control issues that are at the heart of working conditions
and job security.
for the labor movement
Skill is one of the most important ingredients of unions' economic
power. Truly skilled workers cannot be so easily replaced either
by managers or by scabs. To the extent that skilled work is concentrated
in a small segment of the workforce, then that small segment has
disproportionately large power. Skilled work has historically been
critical to the labor movement, both for its direct economic power
but also because the conditions of skilled work tend to generate
leadership for the labor movement as a whole.
of this discussion, skill has two components: The first, the technical
component, is the combination of genetic and learned abilities to
accomplish tasks. We will assume here that the skills under discussion
are learned abilities.
term has a social component in that it is usually applied to those
whose capabilities are greater than the average population. Thus,
although driving an automobile requires substantial training, the
ability to operate a passenger car is not usually regarded as a
skill because the ability is so widespread. Early in the Industrial
Revolution jobs that required literacy were considered skilled.
Universal public education now makes literacy a minimum requirement
for "unskilled" jobs.
Of course, enormous
barriers exist in the labor market, and training is not readily
available to all who want it. The result is that the common use
of the term "skill" is often a measure of how a set of
abilities is rewarded in the marketplace: the higher the pay, the
more "skilled" the job is regarded to be. This shows up
in the distinction generally made between skill and experience.
A worker can be trained to do a number of highly complex operations
that require exceptional manual coordination and/or critical decision
making, involving very expensive processes and materials. Yet if
the combination of operations is specific to just one particular
workplace, the worker is described as "experienced." On
the other hand, a worker who is trained in a series of tasks which
as a package has significant demand in the marketplace is considered
"skilled" and is paid more than her "experienced"
The market is
further distorted by various structural features, particularly sexism
and racism. These cause jobs mainly held by women and minorities
to be regarded as less skilled than jobs requiring similar amounts
of training that are held by white males. Thus for years nurses
and elementary school teachers were less well regarded and paid
less than mechanics. Similarly, as dry-wall installation in the
Southwest came to be a predominantly Latino workers' job, pay failed
to keep up.
The dual nature
of skill--technical and social--leads to two approaches to increasing
what is regarded as skill.
One is for the
worker to gain additional knowledge and analytic abilities and to
become more proficient in a range of technical tasks.
The other approach
is to manipulate the barriers so as to improve the market position
of skilled workers, by limiting entry into the trade. Training can
be restricted and licensing and admissions barriers can be installed
to prevent the hiring of those who have learned the trade on their
own. Union contract requirements limiting specific tasks to specific
trades provide a different market barrier. The barrier approach
in turn can be pursued in different directions:
Skilled workers can make an alliance with management to maintain
the barriers. What management gets from this arrangement is the
skilled workers' political and social support for monopolistic practices
and higher profits. This approach can easily give social support
to racist and sexist discrimination so long as these are convenient
and effective barriers to entry. Historically, this strategy is
associated with construction trades organized into a different union
for each craft, allied with local political machines. This approach
leads to identification with management goals and to a conservative
An alternative path is an alliance with workers that the market
declares are not skilled. What do the "nonskilled" get
out of helping skilled workers restrict entry? First, it is possible
that the power skilled workers wield can be used to advance the
interests of production workers. The Tool and Die Strike is an excellent
example. Second, the organized relationship between nonskilled and
skilled can provide the route by which nonskilled workers can move
into skilled positions.
This, we suggest,
is the genius of the CIO's strategy of "industrial unionism"
in the 1930s. It was not just that the new unions organized all
production workers into one union facing a common boss. It was also
that they found ways to unite skilled and production workers that
built on the power of the skilled tradesmen. The CIO used the power
of skilled work, but not in isolation. A mass movement of production
workers provided the dynamism, the vision of social justice, and
the possibility of political power that drew the skilled workers
and their extra strength to the union cause.
though not without problems, has worked out well. The UAW leadership,
historically conscious of maintaining this critical unity, adopted
the policy of reducing the wage gap between production and skilled.
The main tool turned out to be the standard wage increase derived
from cost-of-living adjustments, which maintained the absolute difference
between skilled and unskilled while closing the percentage gap.
The result was that the UAW achieved wages for its production members
much higher than non-union workers and set the standard for other
unionized production workers.
The hourly wage
of UAW skilled members lagged behind that of craft union construction
workers, but industrial trades workers won more job security, better
benefits and steadier work.
relationship between skilled workers and those classified as semi-skilled
can be seen in the 1997 strike at United Parcel Service. One of
many reasons for the Teamsters' signal victory over UPS was the
strong support from the UPS pilots' union, the Independent Pilots
Association. UPS was particularly vulnerable here since the one
small-parcel area the company did not dominate was air freight and
it was in a desperate fight for market share. If it could move the
planes UPS would have used its managers and small number of scabs
to focus on the priority air parcels. It might have chanced recruiting
strike breakers and certainly would have tempted management to prolong
the strike. But the pilots were a model of preparation and solidarity
work. They issued members detailed information in advance in a pamphlet,
"IPA's Support Guide to a Teamsters Strike," featuring
the logos of both unions and the slogan "Strength Through Unity."
They made it clear that the union would tolerate no scabbing and
that this included any contract carriers UPS might try to hire.
In addition to useful strike information they included Jack London's
famous definition of a scab and a striker code of conduct.
I will encourage
my fellow pilots to maintain unity and participate fully in the
strike. Should any of my fellow pilots choose to perform struck
work, I will identify them to the Association and its members so
they will forever be known as SCABs.
I will maintain
my undiminished integrity and professionalism throughout the strike
and be loyal to those who strike alongside me.
In effect the
Association declared that its right not to cross picket lines applied
to what we might call virtual picket lines over the entire world.
Although UPS threatened to strand pilots overseas, the Association
stood firm that no flights would be initiated anywhere after the
strike deadline and pilots would make arrangements at their own
expense to return home if necessary. The pilots not only honored
the Teamster strike 100 percent, they went regularly to Teamster
picket lines and rallies to provide refreshments and other forms
of support. The IPA organized Internet communications to allow all
its members to report and keep all members informed.
Part of the
reason the Pilots supported the Teamsters was that they were in
their own dispute with UPS management over safety and wages lower
than other carriers. But why such a strong alliance with the Teamsters?
Why not identify as professional business people (as do many pilots)
and ally with UPS to help break the strike, in exchange for increased
wages. Indeed, in 1989 the Pilots had left the Teamsters in disgust.
The answer is that the reformed Teamsters made the difference by
their willingness and commitment to use the power of their own members,
to take on UPS and to make alliances with other workers.
path and the conservative path for skilled workers are both only
potentials, often coexisting. Powerful streams of conservative craft
consciousness exist among the skilled in industrial unions. Similarly,
union identification and broad worker solidarity are sometimes strong
in unions organized by craft. Specific situations, leadership and
traditions make a big difference.
does the power come from?
and the definition of skill may depend heavily on artificial market
barriers, in the long run the power of skilled workers in the production
process depends primarily on their technical skills. More important
than their general technical abilities is the job-specific knowledge
that results from the interaction of the technical skills and the
specific machines and processes in that workplace. Part of what
gives workers power in a strike is the difficulty and expense management
has in replacing them, either temporarily or permanently. As automation
and capital equipment increase and tolerance requirements are made
tighter, the leverage of the skilled worker responsible for set-up,
adjustment and maintenance becomes greater, all else remaining equal.
Until recently, if the United Auto Workers declared a strike, the
major producers would not even consider trying to recruit a scab
workforce. Even if they could recruit sufficient bodies with general
skills, they would risk a lot by allowing them to work on expensive
machines. When Caterpillar broke new ground by recruiting scabs--and
using them productively--during UAW strikes in 1991-92 and 1994-95,
the company greatly reduced the bargaining power of the union.
also feel their power individually. The fact that a skilled worker
has job knowledge required by management often gives her the choice
to cooperate or not in specific instances, depending on the relationship
with the particular boss. To the extent that skilled work requires
mental activity, it is not so easy for the boss to monitor the worker's
output. A worker standing in front of a machine with a cup of coffee
could actually be working very hard.
jobs, particularly repair work, require considerable mobility--to
the work site, to the tool crib, to locate parts, to consult the
vendor via phone or in person. Mobility is an enormous plus for
organizing and also keeps the boss guessing. Skilled jobs require
cooperation and frequent consultation between and across trades
and with production workers. Are the two workers with the cups of
coffee consulting on an urgent production problem, discussing union
organizing, or on break? Higher literacy levels among skilled workers
also facilitate written communication, which helps in organizing
large or dispersed groups.
provided by the job or skill, added to the sense of power, the higher
self-esteem and the degree of protection against management interference
and punishment, all make it easier for skilled workers to be organizers.
They help to explain the high proportion of organizers and leaders
in industrial unions who come from the skilled trades. The union
movement keeps rediscovering this lesson about organizers. The leader
of a successful breakthrough drive to organize clerical workers
at Harvard University makes this observation: "What we found
is that the more freedom and respect a person has on the job, the
easier it is for her to get involved in the union. [We seek out
for organizers] people who are the happiest at work and the most
independent." (Hoerr, 1997, p. 156)
attack on skilled work
over the workplace that skilled workers exercise both individually
and collectively makes them a crucial target for managers seeking
to implement lean production. This is especially true in unionized
situations where the power of workers may be organized collectively.
Lean production is best described from the workers' vantage point
as "management-by-stress": Management exercises tighter
control over production by using devices such as statistical process
control charts or visual display systems. These make any problems
in production immediately visible, and any unresolved deviation
quickly generates large and visible consequences. (In the extreme,
a single missing item under just-in-time almost immediately shuts
down the entire operation.) This way of functioning is a more efficient
and effective disciplinarian of the workforce than layers of monitoring
supervisors. (See Parker and Slaughter, 1988, 1994)
In this system,
the priority placed on "flexibility"--instant worker adaptability
to managers' shifting requirements--and an urgent, pressurized atmosphere
largely shape the approach to skilled work. While the system may
raise skills in some cases, it also retards the ability of skilled
union workers to maintain their skills as it reduces their real
power in the production process.
Lean production attacks the power of skilled workers on the shop
floor in several related ways: shifting key skilled work from union
workers to management personnel and to outside vendors, the bundling
of skilled work, standardizing work and capturing knowledge, and
controlling the nature of training.
bundling of skilled work
If we think
of skilled work as a bundle of specific skills, then lean production
forces a change in the shape of the bundle. Traditionally craft
skills in the workplace have been bundled vertically. The hierarchical
ranking of functions will vary depending on the particular skill
and job. In some cases installation, for example, may require exceptional
skill while in others only minimal. Also, the relationship between
trades is not two-dimensional but multidimensional; all trades have
some overlap with several other trades.
rearrangement of responsibilities allows a significant amount of
work to be moved away from those who traditionally have done it--well-paid
skilled trades workers in the union. At the bottom end, it shifts
the lower-skill parts of the bundle to production workers. As one
of the leading authorities on Total Productive Maintenance explains:
"The key innovation of TPM is that operators perform basic
maintenance on their own equipment. They maintain their machines
in good running order and develop the ability to detect potential
problems before they generate breakdowns." (Nakajima, 1989,
At the same
time, the higher-skilled parts of the bundle are removed as well.
Contracting out is now near-universal, and technology allows some
jobs such as machine troubleshooting and analysis, which previously
had to be done on the shop floor, to take place over networks in
remote offices outside the bargaining unit and even outside the
The lean production
emphasis on "full utilization" retrains skilled workers
for a wider range of tasks. Although the horizontal training may
seem to encompass the same total area of skills as the older, vertical
model, the horizontal formation has a number of negative consequences.
of new skills that are truly new under "cross-training"
is partly illusory. Knowledge about different trades has always
been required in normal work. An electrician who is diagnosing problems
in a Computerized Numerical Controlled (CNC) milling machine must
know a fair amount about its mechanical design and operation, as
well as how the machine typically behaves, in order to work with
the machine repairperson and the operator. This was true even when
rigid lines existed between trades. The lines did not prevent different
trades from learning related areas covered by other trades nor from
working together as a team. It also did not prevent substantial
work across lines on a voluntary basis. What the rules did was keep
the trades from performing major work in areas not their own and
provided a right of refusal in minor cases. The point of most cross-training
is not "cross-understanding" but a way for the company
to require "cross-working."
in this way are likely to be machine-specific and company-specific,
adding little to the worker's value in the market. Such training
reduces the sense of craft in the job. It was craft pride, in part,
that motivated workers to keep up with changing technology, and
less craft pride means less incentive and ability to do so. Cross-training
seeks to substitute pride in the company, usually unsuccessfully.
power workers might gain by machine specific knowledge is countered
by moving in the direction of "standardized work" and
detailed documentation. By making skilled workers more interchangeable,
the horizontal model changes the balance of power between management
and workers on the shop floor and reduces the individual worker's
protection in dealing with individual managers. More