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This study, using 1994 survey data from 350 union members working in the mill-cabinet segment of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, focuses on two key issues:
(1) How do union members view the new technology entering their industry and its potential effects on them, the industry, their craft, and their jobs?
(2) What role do these members want their union to play in regard to the new technology?
We believe these two issues are critical to the labor movement today as it attempts to develop strategies to address new technology and related work organization changes in American workplaces. A fuller understanding of union members' views of new technology and the role they expect their union to play will also aid labor educators as they help union leaders and members grapple with these profound workplace Changes. For industrial relations scholars, we hope this study will contribute to the debate about union responses to changes in technology and the role technology changes play in shaping industrial relations.(1)
The introduction of new technology and corresponding work organization changes in many American industries and union responses to these changes have stimulated considerable discussion and activity within the labor movement. Union involvement in technology issues has been addressed by reports, policy statements and conferences of the AFL-CIO Evolution of Work Committee, the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department (IUD), the AFL-CIO Human Resources Development Institute (HRDI), the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, and the union-supported Work and Technology Institute. Several unions, most notably the Machinists, the Communications Workers of America, and the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers' International Union, have devoted significant staff resources to technology issues. Additionally, some University and College Labor Education Association affiliates, as well as Labor Notes, sponsor classes and conferences on the subject of new technology and workplace change.
Specifically, the AFL-CIO and the IUD currently call on unions and their members to be involved to a greater extent in all aspects of work reorganization and technology.(2) This means not only the traditional union role of bargaining over the effects of such changes, but active union involvement in decisions and policies regarding the design, selection, and implementation of new technology. The AFL-CIO and IUD also advocate more extensive training of union leaders and members around technology issues so they can play a more active role in influencing these decisions. Additionally, both organizations recognize that collective bargaining and workplace strategies alone are not sufficient to ensure that technology is designed and implemented in a way that benefits workers. The labor movement, accordingly to the AFL-CIO and IUD, therefore, should also work to see that the government supports a more worker-centered, skill-enhancing approach.
Actively followed, these reports and policy statements would represent a significant shift in priorities and resources for both the AFL-CIO and the IUD. Until recently, neither placed as a high priority on technology issues. Part of the reason for this might be union leaders' doubts about the importance members place on technology issues and what role union members want their union to play in emerging technologies. In our study, we hope to address these doubts concerning members' interests and concerns by examining the responses of active union members in a skilled craft industry.
Unions are democratic institutions that must rely on member participation and involvement. Union policy is intended to reflect their members' collective voice. Both the threats and opportunities posed by new technology and the calls for greater employee and union involvement further reinforce the need for assessing union members' views on technology issues. Assessing members' attitudes toward technology issues and the role they expect their union to play is critical in not only planning and shaping union policy, but in making the union more responsive to workplace issues in the eyes of its members.
Union responses to new technology can be classified into three categories: (1) obstructionist, (2) fatalist, and (3) proactive.(3) The obstructionist approach wants to prevent the adoption of technology and/or restrict its use in the workplace. Implicit in this approach is the belief that technology, at least as it has been developed and implemented in the American setting, deskills jobs, increases management control over workers, and threatens job security. From the obstructionist point of view, the union's proper role is not to become involved with management in facilitating the introduction of new technology, but to oppose its implementation and use whenever possible. Important to the success of this strategy is that union members see technology in a similarly negative manner or can be convinced to adopt this view.
The fatalist approach begrudgingly accepts the new technology and seeks only to cushion the work force from its more adverse impacts. The union often tries to use contractual provisions to provide protection from the new technology for covered workers in such areas as job loss and loss of pay resulting from reclassification. In this approach, technology is seen as something which the union has little ability to influence or shape. Also implicit in this approach is the view that "there is one model of technological choice available, a stance that takes all initiative away from the union."(4) The fatalist approach may be accompanied by a positive view in which new technology is seen as instrumental in maintaining productivity growth and in improving real wages and job security.
The proactive approach argues that the union should become involved in the planning, design, selection, implementation, and actual use of new technology through either collective …