Industrial Relations and the Reorganization of Work in West Germany: Lessons for the U.S.

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[Excerpt] Some have suggested that to compete in the new world economy we must not only adopt Japanese production practices but also abandon Western traditions of independent unionism. When U.S. trade unionists naturally resist, they are criticized as "adversarial." My argument is that U.S. managers do not need to break the unions or to transform them into subordinate enterprise unions in order to gain the benefits of new work organization. Rather than looking only to Japan for ways to get us out of our current competitive predicament, we should also look to Europe. A particularly useful example is West Germany, whose world-class export strength is widely recognized. Here we find an approach that is more compatible with our own industrial relations traditions; and hence more likely to be acceptable to U.S. workers and thus viable in the long run. As the West German case suggests, and as this chapter demonstrates, productivity-enhancing work reorganization, including various forms of participation and teamwork, is not only compatible with but may even be enhanced by strong, independent unionism. It is important to consider the West German experience because of the increasingly obvious limitations to the wholesale adoption of the Japanese approach in the U.S. In the past ten years or so, American managers have been both frightened by and infatuated with the Japanese model. In the scurry to make firms and plants more competitive, managers have introduced new technologies, redesigned products, reorganized production and supplier networks, moved toward "lean production systems" (Krafcik, 1988), and in some cases attempted to introduce new shop-floor teamwork and cooperative employee or labor-management relations (Katz, 1985; Kochan, Katz, and McKersie, 1986; Luria, 1986). With both the success of the Japanese and the pressure of intensified competition in mind, American managers have moved to reorganize work and to adopt new innovations in employee compensation and participation. The new wisdom suggests that we need to motivate workers, to draw out their input and commitment rather than treat them as cogs in a machine. Where firms are able to avoid unions, they do so, arguing that the old adversarial unionism is incompatible with new participation and teamwork. Where unions are entrenched, managers have often tried to trade some union engagement in managerial decisions in return for a loosening of work rules.
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industrial relations; West Germany; United States; unionism; labor market
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Required Publisher Statement: © M. E. Sharpe. Final version published as: Turner, L. (1992). Industrial relations and the reorganization of work in West Germany: Lessons for the U.S. In L. Mishel & P. B. Voos (Eds.), Unions and economic competiveness (pp. 217-246). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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