Max Ogden reports on some interesting work New Zealand unions are doing around the concept of “high performance workplaces”. The country was hard hit by the neo-liberal agenda of the 80s and 90s, with successive governments doing their best to undermine the voice of workers up until 1999. Now, with the election of a centre-right government last year, unions are wondering to what extent the process of marginalisation will resume. The unions involved in this project* are proposing an interesting way forward; a path which focuses on the workplace, rather than the ballot box. They have produced a handbook which sets out their strategy, and we’d recommend you take a look: Building High Performance Workplaces – the Union Approach (PDF).
The handbook has been prepared for organisers, union reps and members, and looks at how high performance workplaces can be built with the help of strong unions. Such a process forms an important part of collective bargaining. In discussing this, the handbook explores issues which unionists all around the world are familiar with: worker participation, upskilling and lifelong learning, job security, decent wages, collective bargaining, fairness, unity and solidarity. However, and this is what makes the handbook so interesting, they have framed this discussion against issues of business performance.
“…when we hear the words “productivity improvement” we usually think of job losses and cost-cutting or team-building and bonus schemes. They usually result in us working harder with no extra gain or satisfaction. Improving productivity is about improving the value of the business and the work we do. It’s about working smarter, not harder. This is why we call it High Performance Work.”
The unions are not recommending any major change in the goals of unionism. On the contrary, their stated aims are to help workers:
• Improve employment security
• Create more satisfying work
• Improve living standards
• Provide rewards for contributions
• Create healthier, safer, cleaner and tidier workplaces
• Strengthen union membership.
In other words, they’re seeking to raise the quality of work against a backdrop of improved performance. This is an agenda which studies all over the world have confirmed that workers support. And it is one which works, as many countries have shown (Ireland and Sweden being two well known examples, but there are many more).
In discussing the link between performance and job satisfaction, the authors quote management theorist F.W. Taylor, whose “scientific management” did so much to dehumanise work over the last century:
“In our scheme, we do not ask the initiative of our men. We do not want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.”
‘Taylorism’ was about creating a workplace culture that lacked initiative and innovation. As a theory, it is now widely rejected. In practice, however, it remains the de facto standard in many industries. The handbook sums up the consequences rather neatly:
Managers: You’re paid to do what I tell you to do.
Workers: I’ll do exactly what you tell me to, and take no responsibility for the consequences.
In embracing Taylorism, and/or subsequent forms of command-style management, managers discard what is most deeply human in the production process. They fail to realise that workers perform better when they are respected, and when they have a greater role to play in the success of the enterprise. Job satisfaction and productivity go hand in hand.
Good work organisation includes good job design that promotes work/life balance, makes work more interesting and varied and means the time you spend at work is used much more efficiently. It should also make the most of people’s skills and encourage more communication between staff and between managers and staff. This will make things flow more smoothly and reduce glitches and stoppages in the production process. For this to happen, it’s important for the people who actually do the work to determine how it is organised.
In other words this is more than just another step away from Taylor; it is a step towards the democratisation of work. As we have discussed elsewhere, this is the direction which both new management theorists and new unionists are advocating.
As all good unions do, those involved in this project have found a way forward which is both progressive and practical. Again, this makes the handbook a useful reference for unionists from other countries. But what will happen now? Will the country’s new government respond in Cold War fashion – in accordance with the market fundamentalism of the 80s and 90s? Or will they acknowledge the approach for what is is: a well-considered win-win proposal, and a timely response to the threat of global recession?
* The unions involved are the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU); the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) and the NZ Dairy Workers Union (DWU). The document was produced by EPMU and published by the EPMU/DWU-backed Centre for High Performance Work. New Unionism Network member Max Ogden wrote the first draft of the text.