Business and Labor: Out of Date?

June 13, 1994

A debate that could have a major impact on every U.S. business and worker is getting under way in Washington, but with little fanfare.

It was precipitated by a federal commission on worker-management relations which reported earlier this month on its year-long study of the American workplace. The commission's wide-ranging review paints a picture of an economy in flux regulated by laws and practices that may be seriously out of date.

Remarkably, its findings are welcomed by major labor and business organizations, as well as women's and civil rights organizations. The fact that each stresses something different in the report doesn't diminish its value as a basis for the national debate.

The commission is headed by John T. Dunlop, who served as labor secretary in the Ford administration. It also includes two other former labor secretaries (one Republican and one Democrat), the head of Xerox Corp. and a retired chief of the United Auto Workers. They came to no conclusions, which explains the relatively warm embrace from both ends of the labor-management spectrum. But the 10-member commission will now hold hearings and eventually make recommendations. That's when the discussions should heat up.

Among the commission's less surprising findings are the extent to which the work force is changing in this country. More women, more minorities, more people working part time and others working two jobs. Collective bargaining is declining as a tool to protect workers even as laws and administrative regulations strengthen the rights of individual workers. Job content is getting more sophisticated for many employees even as the supply of unskilled workers grows.

But it also finds that real earnings of workers have been stagnant FTC for the past 20 years, that productivity growth has been slow, that many U.S. workers are paid less than their counterparts in Europe and that the gap between the highest and lowest paid U.S. workers has widened. Wages of black male workers lag as far behind their white counterparts as they did in 1970.

The commission outlines major challenges for both workers and corporations. The labor-management system has failed to adjust to many shifts in the economy, it said, raising "serious concern about whether extant institutions and employee-management relations and regulations fit with the rapidly changing economic and social environment." Few other debates will have greater impact on this country's future.

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