Employee Involvement Programs
Most of what unions do addresses the essential “us and them” power relationship in the workplace. Without a union, individual employees are at a big disadvantage in trying to protect their interests against a powerful employer. Unions speak collectively for all those in a bargaining unit, negotiating contracts and challenging employer actions through grievances and other mean. But in an increasing number of workplaces, a different structure for labor-management relations has taken hold.
These are sometimes in place of the traditional adversary mechanisms and sometimes alongside them. Employee involvement programs, also known by such names as total quality management (“TQM”), quality circles and team concept, are devices by which employees and employer representatives sit side by side (both literally and figuratively) to tackle workplace concerns. In some instances, these have proven to be a valuable means for employees collectively to have significant input into workplace decisions.
But be aware that serious dangers can arise. Some employers establish and manipulate these groups as part of a deliberate strategy of divide and conquer. The idea is that by setting up a forum where the voices of individual employees are heard, the union’s role as the collective voice for all its members is weakened.
And some union leaders and members discover the hard way that after a period of “cooperation” with the employer, they are unable to challenge a damaging employer initiative because they failed to preserve the union’s contract and other rights. Unless clear limits are set on the authority of employee involvement programs, the union and its members can find themselves back in the position of being powerless to affect the important decisions in the workplace.
-- Adapted from The Union Members Complete Guide, by Michael Mauer