Increasing Worker Participation Is Essential to Economic Growth

By Staff

Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, pp. 18-19

The 1987 annual meeting of the Southern Regional Council was organized as a conference on Unheard Voices: Worker Participation in the South's: Economy. Participants included men and women from all parts of the region, with diverse backgrounds in labor, law, activism, day care, economic development, government, finance, agriculture and other fields. At the conclusion of the conference, the statement below was adopted. Following the statement are excerpts from the remarks of selected participants.

CONFERENCE STATEMENT

Increasing the participation of workers in decisions at their own workplace and in the economic policies of their own region and country is essential if the South and the nation are to realize future economic prosperity. Worker participation can take many forms--cooperatives, unions, worker-owned businesses, community development cooperations, community- based enterprises, worker-controlled pension funds and others. All are valid so long as the voices of those who work are genuinely heard in the decisions about the workplace, wages, and the governing economic policies.

We believe that a country dedicated to democracy in its government cannot function efficiently and equitably with authoritarianism in its workplace.

Increased worker participation helps to improve productivity, preserve jobs, improve wages, and increase the opportunity for economic gain by all. While these benefits are not the consequences of increased worker participation alone, they cannot be accomplished in the future in the South or in the nation without it.

By almost every reliable standard, United States industries have fallen behind as technology and the international economy have become more prevalent. Some parts of the South, especially, have declined in jobs and wages due to these trends. To reverse these developments--to increase productivity and global competitiveness--investments in human capital must become much more important in economic policy and at the workplace, and workers' voices must be reflected in the decision-making. Competitiveness--productivity, quality, flexibility, and innovation--in a worldwide economy depends on well-educated, well-trained people. Developed people are an almost unlimited asset; underdeveloped people are a serious liability.

Our future lies in recognizing this simple truth and in coming to grips with its implications. Over the next thirty years the nation's and the South's workforce will change as much as the workplace. Demographic trends strongly suggest that within three decades racial minorities will constitute as much as 40 percent of the workforce in the United States and probably more in the South. Similarly, the role of women will continue to increase in the economy. Together, women and racial minorities will be the vast majority of Southern workers in the early part of the next century. In the past, these groups have been the least educated, the least trained, and the least well-paid. Today, they continue to be the victims of private and governmental discrimination. Tomorrow, however, their work will determine the future of our regional and national economy.

Another important consideration influences our reassessment. If ever it was true, no longer in this country is there a direct, necessary connection between what is good for an "American" company and what is good for American communities and its workers. The existence of transnational corporations operating from the United States across the globe means, simply, that the profit motive at these companies may often direct resources, jobs, and investments in ways that are not in our national interest. This phenomenon requires international and national policies that protect the interest of American communities by promoting the participation of workers in decision-making and establishing minimal global workplace standards.

To achieve the benefits of greater worker participation, we believe the following changes in policies and practices are vital:

~ The United States government should seek enforceable minimal international labor standards that protect workers and promote human development just as it now seeks international trade agreements.

~ The federal and state governments should develop a system of lifelong education and training to foster improved worker skills and to invest in human development. In its universal application to job training, housing, and education, the system could be generally modeled after the G.I. Bill.

~ The federal and state governments should adopt policies that provide more equitable sharing of the benefits


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and costs of economic change. Employers should be required to give adequate notice of plant closings and large scale layoffs. Workers should be guaranteed notice of and protection from hazardous materials in the workplace.

~ National and state investment banks should be created to meet important economic needs that promote job creation, job retention and improved wages--needs that are not now sufficiently met by private credit markets. These banks should support valid forms of worker participation.

~ The federal government should provide legislation guaranteeing workers greater direct control of their own pension funds.

~ The federal government should improve the usefulness of federal laws relating to the voting rights of employees in stock ownership plans. It should also encourage more directly worker ownership through taxes, law, and funding.

~ The federal and state governments should spur the development of worker cooperatives and community development corporations and improve the laws requiring reinvestment by financial institutions and insurance companies into local communities and enterprises with valid worker participation.

~ The federal and state governments should affirmatively adopt and implement effective laws removing all forms of racism and sexism from the workplace.

~ The National Labor Relations Act should be strengthened to protect the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively and to streamline the procedures permitting representation elections and prohibiting unfair labor practices. The Act also needs to be revamped to accommodate the growth of service and information industries.

~ The federal government should increase the minimum wage of the Fair Labor Standards Act so that the wage is at least half of the average wage in this country.

These changes will not solve all problems of the South's future economy; however, they will give a meaningful voice to workers and go further than other efforts to help assure future prosperity for all citizens and communities.