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Labor Law

Changing Labor-management Relations

For most of the history of U.S. labormanagement relations, employers and labor unions have seen each other as adversaries. Federal labor law has been shaped by this adversarial relationship, yet shifts in the structure of the U.S. economy have led to more cooperation. In the 1980s unions agreed to givebacks, in which employees agree to reduced wages and benefits in return for job security, particularly in the manufacturing industries. In response, employers have given unions a larger voice in the allocation of jobs and in the work environment itself.

When economic hardships fall on employers, these employers must often negotiate concessions with employees and the unions representing employees in order to save their businesses. After the SEPTEMBER 11TH ATTACKS in 2001, for instance, many airlines in the United States suffered devastating economic downturns. Many of these airlines were forced to negotiate concessions from unions representing airline employees in order to avoid BANKRUPTCY. For instance, in April 2003, a union representing flight attendants for American Airlines agreed to concessions with the airline that saved the company $340 million. The concessions allowed American to avoid bankruptcy, which some commentators had previously suggested was inevitable.

Since the 1980s, innovations in corporate management that advocate teamwork, quality circles, and total quality management (TQM) have led to legal disputes and questions about the continued vitality of the adversarial model of labor-management relations. Under the NLRA, sections 2(5) and 8(A)(2), employers are prohibited from creating employer-dominated company unions. This prohibition was included in the original NLRA because employers had created sham unions that promised representation for workers but in fact toed the company line.

With the beginning of TQM and quality circles in the late 1980s, some employers have attempted to reinvent the workplace by empowering all levels of workers to help make decisions, instead of delegating this task to a set of managers. The creation of quality circles and employee committees has run afoul of the NLRA provision against employer-created unions. In Electromation, 309 N.L.R.B. 990 (1992), the board held that the company's "action committee" was a labor organization involved with and dominated by the company, in violation of sections 2(5) and 8(A)(2). Electromation was a nonunion company. In E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 311 N.L.R.B. 893 (1993), the board considered identical issues in a union-organized company. The board ruled that a series of safety and fitness committees created by du Pont were illegal under the NLRA. These cases illustrate the skepticism of some unions about the true intentions of management and the difficulty in adjusting to change in some areas of labor law.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Labor Department - Employment And Training Administration to Legislative PowerLabor Law - Historical Background, Modern Labor Law, Unfair Labor Practices, Reinventing The Workplace: Improving Quality, Or Creating Company (sham) Unions?