Labor Notes’ January and February debate on the stifling effects of no-strike clauses, and of contracts in general, has missed an even more important inhibiting factor: acceptance of management rights.
The ideology and practice of management rights keep unions on the sidelines as decisions are made that hurt not only members but also the union’s power.
Management rights clauses and longer-term contracts arrived in the late ’40s, just as the ideology of unionism narrowed to only providing good wages and benefits, standardized work conditions, and discipline proceedings. Those with a broader view of struggle and solidarity were called communists, and ejected.
As unionism narrowed, stewards were transformed from shop-floor organizers to quasi-lawyers who represent members in judicial proceedings, limited by the contract and the acceptance of management’s prerogatives.
As a steward, I was told that when a member came to me, I should look in the contract for a violation. If there was none, I was left with a relatively empty toolbox.
But contract violations are not the biggest problem we face. Changes made under management rights are eliminating jobs and making work life unbearable for those who remain. Automation, intrusive monitoring systems, “lean” work organization, and “blame-the-worker” safety programs threaten not only jobs and working conditions but also traditional sources of union strength: skill and solidarity.
These encroachments overwhelm the union’s ability to protect members with grievances. Very few contracts, for example, have GPS clauses a steward can cite, while monitoring is increasing everywhere. The narrow focus on contract enforcement leaves us less able to win the struggles that arise at contract time.
This downward spiral is the legacy of management rights.
The European unions are different: they reject the ideology of management rights and have insisted on inserting the union into decisions about the future of work.