It’s not enough to produce widgets, we must produce quality widgets that can be sold for a profit. This expectation applies across the board — to the service industries as well as commodity production. However, “quality” is a notoriously elusive concept[i]. For this reason blue collar workers (and an increasing share of white collar workers) have grown accustomed to the checklists and graphs that come with quality assurance. Here’s an interesting idea: what if we extended quality assurance processes to employment relations?

There are two linked assumptions underlying this idea:

1.      Employers need employees to produce a quality product in an efficient manner, at the right cost, to make an acceptable return on investment.
2.      In order to deliver on this, employees need quality employment relations.

It sounds fair, doesn’t it? After all, why should quality outcomes be a one-sided affair? It also makes good business sense. As management guru Friedrich Herzberg put it, back in 1963, “If you want people motivated to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”

Employment Relations Quality Assurance (ERQA) is a concept developed by New Zealand union organiser Owen Johnstone[ii]. Put simply, it is about employers and employees acting together as guarantors of job quality. Importantly, this work is framed as a legitimate part of good business practice. ERQA forums bring together reps from each group identified in the workplace (eg operations workers, admin workers , contractors and temps, middle management and the CEO). The forum makes no distinction between union members and non-members. In Owen’s experience this is important because it allows the union to keep its workplace advocacy work separate. Meetings are bound by the “Chatham House Rule[iii]”, according to which “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”. Once ERQA is in place, any worker can initiate a problem-solving session, which is run according to the agreed quality assurance process.

Wearing his union cap, Owen feels vindicated in developing this approach by the huge upturn he has seen in membership. In one enterprise it has gone from 3% to 100%, including all of the casual and part-time staff.

“People see the union in a different light now. We’re not some external force which only comes along when its called. We’re the central facilitators of everybody’s guarantee of a quality working life.”

One of the reasons the ERQA approach is so interesting is that it must be developed at enterprise level. It cannot be created from above by social partnership or tripartite agreements. It is not established by third-party negotiators at industry level. It does not come and go with elections, CEO appointments, or union rep replacements. Rather, it is a concrete process built by the workers and managers themselves, in their own workplaces. This not only encourages deeper worker participation, it absolutely requires it. ERQA gets its hands dirty.

As we have discussed elsewhere[iv], the effect of higher-level industry arrangements has been diluted by globalisation and the financial crisis. The 20th century “labourist” model of employment is crumbling. With this, we are seeing the rapid rise of the “precariat” — a new class of workers that includes temps, part-timers, agency workers, contractors and interns etc. As insecurity at work becomes the new normal, old agreements and understandings are hollowed out, and commercial risks are transferred onto the workforce.

With this, there has been a huge increase in work-related stress, anxiety and depression. In March 2010, for the first time ever, the ILO formally recognised mental and behavioural disorders as occupational diseases. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020, depression will be the second most common cause of ill health and premature death worldwide. And according to the WHO, suicide rates have increased by 60% over the last 50 years. How do we (as unionists) address these issues, while also meeting the new challenges in production of goods and services? We cannot leave these questions to management. It would seem that an approach like Employment Relations Quality Assurance is worth discussing further. If your manager looks rather sceptical, you might like to quote a little management theory of your own:

 “…you can’t build a company that’s fit for the future unless you build a company that’s fit for human beings.”
Gary Hamel, whom Wall Street Journal called “the world’s leading expert on business strategy”, ranking him #1 among the Top 20 most influential business thinkers.

“What we need to do is learn to work in the system, by which I mean that everybody, every team, every platform, every division, every component is there not for individual competitive profit or recognition, but for contribution to the system as a whole on a win-win basis.”
W. Edwards Deming, regarded by many as the leading quality guru in management theory.

For more information on ERQA, see
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[i]    In the mid 1980s various companies were trying to import quality assurance models from Japan. Initial results were less than impressive. In order to find out why, AT&T sponsored some research in the area. Clotaire Rapaille, a French Jungian psychologist, found that the concept of quality was profoundly laden with cultural values. To paraphrase his findings rather crudely, in Japan the word quality was associated with perfection; in Scandinavia and Germany workers thought quality was all about specifications; in Italy workers thought quality was related to matters of style; in France it was related to the concept of luxury. Most significantly for AT&T, in the USA quality meant something “works better than previously”. No wonder Quality Assurance, managed according to the Japanese cultural template, wasn’t producing the intended results! Australian researcher Colin Pidd later sought to understand what quality meant to workers in Australia and New Zealand. For both countries quality required some kind of personal, subjective identification with the product.

[ii] Owen Johnstone works for the Amalgamated Workers Union of New Zealand, Southern. He has been a union organiser for blue collar workers for many years, and has also been a drain layer, sheet metal worker, and meat industry employee. He has produced a presentation on ERQA, which can be downloaded from

[iii]  For more on the Chatham House Rule and its practical significance, see