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The Quality of Work Life Movement

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In 1973, the United Automobile Workers sent a letter to its members at a Harman International auto parts plant in Bolivar, TN, describing the simple, but perhaps revolutionary, idea behind an experiment being conducted there. The letter stated: “We are at that point in time where workers should have more to say about their job and how it should be run. They should participate in a meaningful way in making decisions about the job and the work place— decisions which in the past were made pretty much exclusively by management.”

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When the workers in the Harman experiment were, in fact, given more of a say, they began to fashion new ways of doing things at the plant. They formed cooperative work teams, assigned responsibilities and controlled their own time and scheduling. As ob¬servers described it, people became more involved and interested in their jobs.

The results of the experiment? Absenteeism and turnover declined, product quality improved, collective bargaining was facilitated, and there were significant labor-cost savings, which were shared by employees and management. The workers even had enough free time to start their own school, where they studied everything from welding to accounting, and to publish their own newspaper.

Today, experiments like the one at Harman International are being tried by dozens of organizations. The simple idea that workers should be given more say is the basis for what is being called labor-management cooperation or, more broadly, the “quality of work life” movement. And an increasing number 01 behavioral scientists, man¬agers and labor leaders feel that these efforts to create genuine employee participation in decision making are one of the potentially most powerful and far-reaching new ways of improv¬ing organizational effectiveness.

Quality of work life (QWL) is not a single theory or technique; it’s not a job-enrichment, profit-sharing or in¬centive scheme. QWL is a process of joint decision making, collaboration and building mutual respect between management and employees. This process seems to cause a change in people—in how they feel about them¬selves, their work and each other. It is this change in the human climate that QWL advocates claim increases satis¬faction and facilitates better solutions to management and production problems.

QWL endeavors have taken a variety of forms. General Motors, America’s largest industrial employer, has made a major commitment to QWL and has plant-level labor-management committees involved in everything from specifying tools and setting up safety committees to altering traffic flow and redesigning jobs. At the Rushton Mining Company, workers have rotated tasks and taken over supervisory roles. And organizations ranging from Heinz and Nabisco to the Tennessee Valley Authority have ini¬tiated employee participation. For companies like these, the claims of ec¬onomic impact have been signifi¬cant—in savings from lower turnover, absenteeism and accident rates, reduced supervision, better product and service quality, and more efficient working methods.

A number of city governments are involved in QWL projects. In 1972, Jamestown, NY, was economically depressed and losing industry. Mayor Stanley Lundine brought together the city’s management and labor leaders to form a joint committee that set up QWL programs in a dozen area com¬panies. After three years, unemploy¬ment was down from 10% to 4%, exist¬ing industry was expanding, and the Cummins Engine Co. had been attracted to the area.

Lundine was so impressed with this dramatic rise in productivity that he went on, as a con¬gressional representative, to initiate a labor-management cooperation bill. Lundine’s proposal recently became law as part of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act. And the federal government, which has already supported a number of QWL projects, will be spend¬ing millions of dollars in this area over the next few years.

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While there are over 200 labor-management committees in American companies and localities, only a handful of QWL programs have been as comprehensive and successful as Harman or Jamestown. The fact is that, while employee participation may seem like a simple idea, it implies a major change in the way organizations are run. A so-called QWL project that consists merely of suggestion boxes or that isn’t supported by management and union leadership is destined to fail. Authentic employee par¬ticipation requires the empowerment of people and is a slow process of comprehensive organizational change.

Social scientist Dr. Michael Mac-coby, one of the architects of the Harman project, has written: “Most people want to do a good job and resent being treated as if they lack the ability to think and understand the legitimate problems of a business. In turn, most managers are not hard-hearted but rather fearful that if they let down their guard, unions and workers will push them around.”

While managers and supervisors may be threatened by a loss of control, union members are often suspicious that QWL is just a work speed-up in disguise or a threat to their adversary solidarity. These kinds of concerns are dealt with in most QWL programs by establishing basic ground rules, among them that people will not lose jobs if productivity increases and will share in economic gains that may result.

All QWL efforts involve extensive education and training—in organization assessment, technical skills, communications, team building and joint problem-solving. In fact, QWL is a burgeoning new area in the training and HRD field. There are centers and consultants throughout the country involved in facilitating and assisting QWL programs. Research is being con¬ducted by social scientists at the Wharton School, UCLA, Ohio State, the University of Michigan and other institutions. The American Society for Training and Development has recently established a committee to ex¬amine QWL and its relationship to HRD. And each year there are new con-ferences and workshops to educate people about QWL and develop the HRD skills it requires.

There is a large body of theory and research to support the QWL concept. The work of behavioral scientists from Elton Mayo to Maslow, McGregor and Likert suggests that participatory management can release human en¬ergy. A rising concern with productiv¬ity and new questions about what people can expect from work are fi¬nally putting these beliefs into action. Many experts feel that current indus¬trial problems, such as absenteeism, turnover and sabotage, are the result of the increasing job dissatisfaction of a more educated and demanding work force. Others see automation and new technology necessitating the redesign of jobs and work roles.

The move to improve the quality of working life is not just a humanistic cause or productivity campaign. Rather, it indicates a growing belief that the future of American industry lies in finding more effective and democratic ways of supporting and using skills, energy and ideas of people.

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Source :
Deborah Shaw Cohen. Training Magazine, January 1979.

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