NLRB faults Du Pont use of labor-manager panels

June 08, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- For the second time in recent months, the National Labor Relations Board has imposed limits on worker-management teams -- the collaborative units that have been heralded by some business experts as a way to boost American competitiveness and address pressing workplace issues.

The NLRB ordered the Du Pont Co. to disband seven teams at its Deepwater, N.J., plant and instead deal with its Chemical Workers union on workplace concerns.

The decision, issued last week, was hailed by unions but criticized by business executives.

U.S. manufacturing concerns, in particular, have set up many such committees in recent years to improve product quality and productivity. The collaborative groups at hundreds of companies emulate management-worker teams that operate in Japanese manufacturing plants, where unions are not as influential as their American counterparts.

The ruling by the NLRB -- an independent federal agency that acts to prevent employers and unions from engaging in illegal organizing and labor practices -- also stands opposed to the philosophy of Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who has been a strong advocate of worker-management teams.

"It's definitely a setback for the Clinton administration," Richard B. Berman, executive director of the Employment Policies Institute, a Washington-based research organization, said yesterday. "It's bad for business whenever management has its hands tied dealing with employees. . . . Management ought to be allowed to deal [directly] with its own employees."

But Rex Hardesty, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, countered that the NLRB's ruling was "a victory for the possibility of real labor-management cooperation and workplace committees and a defeat for workplace committees that are management-dictated and . . . undercut unions."

The Du Pont case was the first major dispute in which the NLRB addressed the issue of worker-management committees in corporations where a union is present.

Unions have objected to management-sponsored panels on the grounds that they usurp the function of unions. The NLRB agreed with that theory late last year in a case involving Electromation Inc., an Elkhart, Ind., company. The board ruled that Electromation's worker-management teams were illegal "sham unions" because they cropped up at a time when the Teamsters were trying to organize the plant.

Similarly, the three active members of the NLRB voted unanimously last week that seven safety and fitness committees at Du Pont's New Jersey plant were illegal labor organizations under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The agency found that the panels made decisions about safety that were subject to the approval of management.

Du Pont responded yesterday with a statement saying its "committees were in no way, by design or operation, intended to be 'labor organizations' or in any way vehicles to undermine the bargaining authority of the union."

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