AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
The role of trade unions in sociotechnical systems (STS) is a critical litmus test for understanding both the conceptual foundations of the STS approach and its possibilities for dissemination. My intent in this paper is to deal with two issues regarding unions and sociotechnical systems both as reflected in the literature and in my experience as a practitioner for over 20 years both as consultant on workplace change and working inside unions. First, the paper raises critical meta-questions about the ethics and logic of STS. Second, it comments on the practical role of unions in the introduction of STS systems in both employers and unions. This essay reflects in the words of William Foote Whyte, a "participant-observer" perspective though admittedly with a strong political flavor (Whyte, 1994). While exploring industrial democracy, I was first introduced in depth to STS thinking and thinkers in Paris in 1977 at international meetings on quality of working life. This article provides a first-hand perspective on STS practice stimulated by this first encounter and shaped subsequently by years of working to bring about workplace change.
A review of the literature demonstrates that for most STS thinkers, the union role is at best an add-on to the process (Davis, 1977; Pasmore, 1988; Mohrman & Cummings, 1989; Shonk, 1992; Fox, 1995). For a few, it is a core issue of STS design (Rankin, 1990; Ogden, 1993; Frei et al., 1993; Cohen-Rosenthal & Burton, 1993). In the literature on teams and reengineering, unions barely merit a footnote or passing mention.
To what can we attribute this absence of serious engagement of the union issue in STS theory? At one level, the reason can be a fairly benign lack of a research base and theory on which to base the construction of a serious union role. Hackman in 1977 described this problem and it is not much less true today. He stated: "The problem is that the people most appropriate to conduct such research [on union involvement] are behavioral scientists who are knowledgeable about organizations and change processes. And thus far behavioral scientists as a group have been so dominantly oriented to the needs and objectives of management that gaining acceptance by organized labor -- even for research on ways to enhance the effectiveness of union involvement in quality of work programs -- may turn out to be problematic" (Hackman, 1977).
My purpose is not to impugn the motives of STS proponents who ignore or do not give considered treatment to the union issue. Their intention is to create a "good workplace" that could be objectively seen by all as being "good." Further, in the European, Australian, and Scandinavian schools, often attention is not given to union status because they assume an economy with a strong, secure, and valued labor movement in the workplace and politically. Given declining union density in many of these countries, this assumption may not hold up in the future.
Intentional or not, many STS proponents reflect the Taylorists they reject when there is a substitution of the "new" workplace STS science for the old workplace "time and motion" science of Taylorism, arguing that the new approach is simply better science or practice. Taylor represented an approach that disdained management that were stuck in old paradigms, refused to objectively look at their situation, and stood pat when considerable improvement opportunities were clear but not acted on. Taylor also had a disdain for unions, viewing them as soldiering for old practices, as irrelevant to the industrial science he was discovering and blocking new work practices that would make work less capricious, easier, and lead to higher incomes (Taylor, 1911). The sad fact is that too many STS advocates appear to feel the same way today about management and unions. It is a belief in the validity of the STS science and a wariness of the democratic uncertainty and wavering that comes with union involvement. Managers are often treated more as obstacles than allies. The consequence is such a disaffection from the major workplace partners that often sociotechnocrats are seen as arrogant or disconnected from workplace wisdom.
Merrylyn Emery provides a direct expression of this anti-institutional viewpoint that distrusts the parties in the workplace in favor of an alliance of the expert and the employee:
Above all, the experiential component should be sufficient to convince the most
skeptical that the designs will be those of the participants, not the managers of the
workshop and not the other vested interests such as top management and union
officials [emphasis added]. Having long stressed the need for a single channel of
representation unions are now faced with the need to shape up . . . it seems silly
that so many consuming and self defeating mistakes are caused by a failure of both
parties to consult with and take advice from those who have practical experience
in the field. If this should sound like a whinge from one of the professionals, it
probably is. But the whinge is not towards our greater glory but towards the most
efficient and effective human solutions." (Emery, 1993, p. 132)
This absence of significant incorporation of the union in STS raises the issue of the ethical underpinning of STS design. Implicit in the writings of STS proponents is the notion that STS represents an ethically superior system to current practice. If and when STS is done right," then workers are better off and workplaces are more just and effective. Ed Lawler, an astute scholar of participation at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, speaks with conviction about the possibilities for "high involvement management" (Lawler, 1988). Lawler and Morhman state that "the role unions once filled is not viable in the new management environment: they must change or continue to decline" (Lawler & Mohrman, 1987).
The original Norwegian and Tavistock school of STS thinking saw STS as the resting place of a more democratic system that drew its authority from a more direct connection to constituents than typical representative democratic institutions. Fred Emery discusses the "sociotechnical foundations for a new social order?" (Emery in Trist, 1993). Because its immediate participants created it, it had claim to a higher moral authority to be able to influence work directions -- as well as ostensibly producing better results. As such, older style democratic institutions, many of which had obvious warts in terms of their claim to representation, e.g., trade unions, were viewed with some suspicion.
When unions would embrace the STS approach then they were considered good and democratic and when they didn't then they represented an older paradigm unwilling to be reasonable. It holds this simple logic: Unions are supposed to be good. STS is good. Unions must therefore promote what is good. When unions reject STS then they cannot be good. This is evident today in practice when work redesign teams report on how they would change the workplace and in cases where the union membership have voted down the changes, the outcomes of this form of democracy are discounted in favor of the design team's wisdom. Lack of union leadership, worker ignorance, and attachment to working class privileges can become convenient scapegoats when the outcomes are contrary to STS theory.
Implicit in the STS rhetoric is the assumption that it has claim to both good ends-meaningful and productive work -- and good means -- shop floor democracy. In essence, it replaces the moral claim that unions have had of representing a good means -- self determination of workers -- and good ends -- fair wages and benefits in a healthy workplace. I would argue it is because of this implicit claim to a superior pathway for the creation of a just workplace that unions are relegated to such a peripheral role in STS systems. Hence it is less that unions have not proven their effectiveness in design but in the meta-construction of STS that unions are deemed unnecessary and thus not prominently figured.
UNIONS: VESTIGES OF THE PAST OR PATHWAYS TO THE FUTURE
Is this criticism of trade unions a fair one and does STS represent an advance against current democratic practice? In many ways, traditional servicing models of unionism where the union acts as the external agent to get things for its workers/clients tend to be hierarchical in nature. This welfare model of unionism serves to limit the range of effectiveness of unions and their …