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Abstract

[Excerpt] The debate within the labor movement over the merits of quality of worklife (QWL) or "employee involvement" programs has concentrated primarily on two positions. One side sees QWL as a way to improve working conditions, morale and productivity by providing a more congenial workplace where everybody "works together." The other side claims that, at best, quality of worklife programs are sophisticated disguises for deskilling and speed-ups, and, at worst, are manipulative union-busting tools which U.S. management has borrowed from the Japanese.

In the discussion that follows, we present the information which persuaded us to reach a rather optimistic conclusion about the potential of employee involvement programs. We conclude that we live in an age of deskilled management. Management has lost sight of the product and has concentrated on increasingly complicated methods of increasing profits without having to produce better products or services. We argue that what hope there is to correct this structural mismanagement lies in the hands and minds of workers and their unions. To the extent that those doing the work know more about it than others, it is essential that the knowledge of the many shape the decisions currently in the hands of the few. To that end, we propose a model of employee involvement which depends for its success on the strength of the union and of rank-and-file involvement in its operation.

We get to this point first by reviewing the development of management as a profession. We then outline three characteristic ways that employee involvement programs can work. The first two models show the most likely outcomes of QWL programs. They are characterized by managerial domination, lack of access to critical information governing high-level decision making, no way to change shopfloor routines in spite of worker requests for change, and a general separation of decision-making from decision implementation. The third scenario presents what we consider to be the minimum requirement for a truly empowering QWL program. Our aim is to help change the way unionists conceive their options regarding QWL. But equally important, we hope that our conclusions generate discussions on ways to prevent workers and their unions from being silent victims in the crimes of mismanagement.

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