Issue 6 - Spring/Summer 1999
A Union Strategy for Skilled Work and Technological Change (page 1 of 2)
By Mike Parker
Labor Notes

Everyone talks 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 unionism.

The issues surrounding skill are critical to the labor movement for four kinds of reasons:

1. Better Jobs
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.

2. Lean Production Practices
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.

The "High 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)

In reality, 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.

3. Areas to Organize
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.

4. Power 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.

What is skill?

For purposes 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.

Second, the 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" counterpart.

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:

Conservative. 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 political orientation.

Solidarity. 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.

The alliance, 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.

This complementary 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.

The solidarity 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.

Where does the power come from?

While wages 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.

Skilled workers 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.

Most skilled 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.

These opportunities 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)

The attack on skilled work

This control 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.

The 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.

Lean production's 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, p. 2)

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 plant.

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.

The quantity 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."

Skills taught 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.

Any additional 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 >>


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