News / Publications » Publications

Avenues for Worker Participation

There are a variety of different mechanisms for worker participation in the redesign of public services. Today, Total Quality Management and High Performance Workplace methods are often encountered as part of redesigning schemes. Participation on redesign commissions could be a way for labor's voice to be heard. Labor-management committees have long been a part of labor relations in the public sector. Other programs that have existed (although not widely) in the public sector workplace include Quality Circles, Quality of Work Life programs, and Self-Directed Teams.

Under the right circumstances, any of these avenues for redesigning government can establish at least minimal dialogue between labor and management to foster organizational change. Some of these mechanisms, however, offer greater potential for genuine voice than others. Workers and the union should keep in mind the limits and risks of the various programs when deciding whether to participate.

"Reinventing Government" Commissions

While there has been much talk about scaling back government operations and trimming the public sector workforce, there is at least one high-growth industry in the public sector: the "Reinventing Government" commissions. During recent years, a multitude of task forces, commissions, blue-ribbon panels, and other groups of appointed "experts" have been formed at all levels of government. These commissions invariably include an abundance of businesspeople, academicians, consultants, community leaders, and government staff. They may even include a private sector unionist or two. But all too often, the only voice not represented on such panels is that of the front-line public worker.

The recommendations of reinventing government commissions typically include reorganizing agencies, competitive bidding, privatization, performance measurement, merit-based pay, and downsizing. At the same time, the commission might recommend "labor-management cooperation." Such recommendations often receive wide coverage in the press and put the union in the position of reacting to harmful proposals, which is not conducive to working for positive change. The shortcomings of most of these commission reports reflects the lack of credible public worker input. When such commissions are in the formative stages and the union might be able to "make a difference", it is often useful to fight for inclusion so that the worker's voice can be heard.

There are tricky political issues involved with participating on "reinventing government" commissions. In all likelihood, the union representative will be a minority member on a commission that could make recommendations at odds, in the short term at least, with the best interests of front-line workers and the public they serve. On the other hand, participating on a commission offers opportunities for the exchange of information and ideas that the union can ill afford to pass up. It can also provide the union with a forum to advocate more meaningful front-line worker input. The union will need to balance the political risk involved in participation with the risks of the reinventing government debate taking place without front-line worker or union input. In order to minimize these risks, the union should take steps to ensure that it is well-prepared for participation on a commission, including:

  • developing preliminary recommendations ahead of time; 

  • going into the commission with a strong agenda for change and a sense of how the union's recommendations would be embodied in the commission's final report; and 

  • being prepared to issue a dissenting report if need be. 

Labor-Management Committees

Labor-Management Committees (LMCs) are the most widespread form of worker participation in the public sector. The committees are often established in contract negotiations and can feature strong union representation. They may be ad hoc or permanent, and the rules under which they operate (the number of members, frequen cy of meetings, groups represented, and so on) vary.

The issues that LMCs most often address are those that:

  • fall outside the scope of contract negotiations, such as the introduction of new technology;
  • are so complex they require in-depth study, like health care cost containment;
  • are so troublesome they are not easily resolved through other channels, including such areas as productivity; or
  • require ongoing attention, like workplace health and safety. 

As a forum for the exchange of ideas between labor and management, LMCs can be useful. The danger of referring issues to an LMC is that they will languish due to inaction. AFSCME's minimum safeguards for LMCs were set forth at the 1986 Convention, and include:

  • equal representation of labor and management;
  • the use of trial periods, with a provision for evaluation;
  • those responsible for bargaining and administering the collective agreement shall also be responsible for joint activities conducted outside the formal bargaining process; and
  • an understanding that the committee is not a substitute for collective bargaining, and agreements arising out of the committee are advisory and cannot automatically supersede the collective bargaining agreements.

Quality Circles

Quality Circles (QCs) are small groups of employees that meet voluntarily to identify and analyze problems and recommend solutions to management. Meetings may or may not take place on the clock, so participants may or may not be paid for their extra efforts. QC participants might be involved in implementing their suggestions, but this does not mean they have any real decision-making authority. QCs were trendy in the private sector in the 1970s and 1980s, and have been tried on a limited scale in the public sector. However, the "fad" has abated and QCs are no longer widely used, especially in unionized settings.

Unionists have long been suspicious of QCs because they typically ignore the union structure. They are often dominated by management representatives and can be, in effect, nothing more than a suggestion box by committee. Nevertheless, some advocates argue that QCs can act as a steppingstone to more empowering types of programs.

Quality of Work Life

Quality of Work Life (QWL) is a term that has been used liberally over the years, to describe everything from flextime to self-directed work teams. QWL usually refers to joint union-management programs to improve organizational effectiveness and productivity as well as working conditions. A network of labor-management committees, led by a steering committee, usually guide these efforts. QWL programs are wider in scope than QCs and LMCs, and often involve redesigning or "broadbanding" jobs and/or changing the work process.

QWL was never very widespread in the public sector, and in recent years has receded in the private sector as emphasis has shifted to other types of programs.


Self-Directed Teams

Self-Directed Teams (SDTs) can be implemented as "free-standing" programs or as part of wider quality efforts. SDTs are known by many names - autonomous work groups, self-managed teams, worker self-management, and socio-technical systems. Employees in a SDT are responsible for all tasks associated with the work they perform, including functions normally carried out by supervisors like the assignment of work, training, scheduling, and quality control.

SDTs originated in heavy manufacturing industries during the 1960s and 1970s when the drudgery of assembly-line production methods resulted in the "blue-collar blues" and led to a drop in output and quality.

SDTs require every team member to be familiar with (and responsible for) all facets of the work process, so there is a heavy emphasis on ongoing training and the development of "multi-skilled" workers. Also, SDTs may lead to changes in pay structure such as compensation for additional skills and duties taken on by team members.

Although there is still a role for management in a team-based workplace, front-line supervisors can perceive SDTs as a threat to their authority. In their new role, managers must shift their emphasis away from directly overseeing work to being a coordinator and resource person.

Total Quality Management

Some redesign initiatives are based on the principles of Total Quality Management (TQM), first developed by W. Edwards Deming. Deming is widely considered the "father" of the TQM movement. An American statistician, his views were first adopted by Japanese industrialists in the 1950s and 1960s and helped establish Japan as a leading economic power.

While TQM is sometimes viewed negatively by unionists because it is often implemented in a top-down fashion, it actually shares much common ground with traditional trade union values. TQM focuses on the work process rather than the individual worker. TQM is designed to replace management control of workers with employee and management commitment to quality. Workers study work systems to suggest overall improvements rather than being rewarded or punished for individual efforts. In fact, according to Deming, individual performance appraisal systems are not compatible with TQM.

Management-dominated improvement initiatives, called TQM but really just old ideas dressed in new age jargon, have undermined the appeal of TQM to many workers and unions. True TQM requires a fundamental change in how an organization is managed.

Joint union-management TQM processes feature the following:

  • "customer" focus - identifying, meeting and exceeding "customer" expectations is a defining characteristic of most quality efforts. Customers include internal and external parties. Internal customers include other departments and employees. In the public sector, external "customers" can include clients, vendors, elect ed officials, taxpayers, and others. It can be difficult to balance the needs of various "customers" because they often conflict. Yet, in order for TQM to be effective, those needs must be clearly identified and conflicts must be resolved by those responsible for setting policy. Once customer expectations are identified, the degree to which the organization meets the expectations is the measure of quality; 

  • employee involvement and empowerment - TQM recognizes that only front-line workers have the detailed know-how necessary to identify and eliminate defective work practices that reduce the quality of products or services. Their participation in designing work practices is essential in order to improve quality. In a total quality workplace, the organizational structures are flattened, decision-making is delegated to the lowest practical level, and those who are given authority to make decisions are armed with adequate training and information; 

  • work processes and work systems - TQM emphasizes the need to study the total work process (the "big picture") as opposed to an individual task within the work system. According to Deming, 85% to 95% of the errors occurring in most work systems can be attributed not to individuals, but to the system itself. In a TQM organization, teams of employees study a work process to improve it and prevent errors. Statistics and other analytical techniques are used to identify and address bottlenecks and inefficiencies, leading to measurably better outcomes; and 

  • continuous improvement - most organizations in both the public and private sectors do not value "challenges" to the status quo, despite lip service to the contrary. In contrast, the idea that work processes and systems should be continuously improved is central to TQM. Deming described planning as a continuous cycle that he called "PDCA"- develop a plan, do what was planned,check the results, and act on the lessons learned. TQM organizations encourage innovation and risk taking.

High Performance Workplace

Building on TQM and other employee involvement theories, a new type of work organization, known as the High Performance Workplace (HPW), has evolved. HPW is intended to replace the rigid "command-and-control" style of management prevalent today. "Command-and-control" management eliminates the link between thinking and doing: management thinks - workers do. Under this system, employees and unions are kept at arm's length from decision making because their interests are assumed to be limited to achieving higher pay and benefits. Unions and employees are thought to have no commitment to organizational success other than job retention. Employees are viewed as cost items on the balance sheets.

The High Performance Workplace, in contrast, is based on the idea that employees are assets that should be fully developed. HPW theory holds that an organization gains an advantage by providing each employee with an opportunity to achieve full potential. It holds that employees have not only the skills and experience to contribute to high performance, but the commitment as well.


Towards genuine empowerment

Joint quality initiatives can involve direct worker participation or indirect representation through designated representatives on committees or commissions. The scope of control can be confined to a single issue, or can encompass the work process, vendor relationships, and customer satisfaction. Input can vary from a "suggestion box" arrangement, where worker ideas are submitted to management for approval, to true joint decision making. Coverage can range from a single workplace to an entire state or local government. And, finally, the effort can take place under various names, such as "Employee Input Committees," "Total Quality Services," or "Partners for Excellence." Regardless of what an initiative is called or how broad its scope, the union's principles can be met if:

  • the union is involved in all aspects of the program; 

  • front-line workers have genuine input in redesigning work processes; and 

  • those front-line workers receive training that enables them to be effective participants in the redesigning effort. 

The New Workplace

How Does the New Workplace Differ From a Traditional Workplace?

New Workplace Model 

Traditional Workplace 

Employee Empowered: Workers are empowered with the knowledge and skills on all facets of 
work processes and organizational goals and actively participate in decision making.
Management Controlled: Communication is mostly top-down and work is tightly controlled through management's established procedures.
Work Teams: Work is organized into self-managing units whose job boundaries cut across traditional organizational lines. Supervisors act as coaches and mentors. Workers are responsible for both work processes and organizational duties such as hiring and scheduling. Functional Departments: Work is organized by functional department, craft or trade with job boundaries well-defined. Jobs are designed with narrow scope and limited responsibility for the end product. Minimal cooperation exists between functions and departments
Employee-Centered Workplace Policies: Workers are viewed as an asset. The organization's culture is supportive, flexible, and sensitive to the needs of workers. Diversity is valued. Organizations strive to create safe and healthy workplaces sensitive to worker and family demands. Cost-Focused Workplace Policies: Impersonal organizational cultures focus on the cost side of employee issues. Conformance and uniformity are the norm and sensitivity to issues outside the realm of the job is minimal.
Continuous Innovation/Improvement: The organization continuously strives to improve the quality and timeliness of services. Various departments collaborate in service delivery, establishing a system of concurrent innovation. Sequential Innovation: Innovation tends to occur infrequently. The process is slow and completed in stages as different elements of the developmental process are handled by a separate department and then "tossed over the wall" to the next.
Customer and Worker Driven Quality: Quality and public needs are the major drivers of change, with zero defects as a goal. Quality is continuously measured by workers and results are fed back to all. Inspection for Errors: Nominal defect rates are accepted. Quality is the result of process adjustments and inspections at the final stages of production.
Tools for Competitiveness: Measurement tools used by workers, such as statistical process control and benchmarking, are critical to gauging internal performance and external competition. Internally Driven Performance Standards: Managers track or record performance based on internal goals.
Flexible Work Processes: Leading edge technology is implemented as a complement to the skills and knowledge of workers. New technology and production methods provide the ability to produce a greater variety of services in lower volumes. Tightly integrated systems provide "real time" information to front-line workers. Inflexible, Deskilling Technology: The technical system dominates the work. Inflexible systems produce standard services in high volumes and severely limit the introduction of new products. Workers are viewed as extensions of machines, completing repetitive tasks following standard procedures.
New Worker Skills: Work requires creative thinking, self motivation, and academic basics. Problem solving, decision making, business, financial, negotiations, and interpersonal skills, in addition to technical skills are essential for workers. Technical Skills Only: Labor intensive work requires the technical skills to get the job done; no knowledge of product or process outside the immediate task is necessary.
Worker/Management Cooperation: Relationships are based on mutual interests and a cooperative approach to problem solving. Some unions use brief "compacts" to outline the collaborative relationship between workers and management. Adversarial Worker/Management Relationships:Relationships are defined by power and rights. Distrust between workers and management often prevents flexibility in responding to change. Relationships are defined by extensive rules.
Fair and Innovative Compensation Plans: Pay is based on seniority, skill attainment, and/or knowledge. Gainsharing or other group incentives are used to supplement fair pay. Pay Practices Based on Control: Pay is determined by rigid job classification rules and individual pay-for-performance schemes focusing on narrow tasks. The organization seeks to minimize labor costs.

Get news & updates from AFSCME