MANAGEMENT: Workers on the Board

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By instinct and tradition, U.S. labor unions have been content to leave the actual running of companies to management, preferring to stress the bread-and-butter issues of wages, hours and working conditions. But in Europe, worker participation in management decision making is an established idea that keeps spreading continually into more countries and industries. The practice, known in German as Mitbestimmung (literally, having a voice in), took root shortly after World War II in West Germany, where coal miners and steel workers began sitting alongside bosses on industry supervisory boards. In recent years, the notion of giving workers a greater say in the companies that hire them has gained vast new momentum; in one form or another, it is popping up all over the Continent.

Last week in Brussels, the Common Market Commission proposed a statute that could, among other things, result in many firms in the nine-nation Community being governed by supervisory boards representing shareholders, labor and management. In Sweden, worker groups have already won the right to audit company books. In The Netherlands, major employers are required by law to consult a workers' council before closing even an unprofitable plant. In Norway, workers may decide among themselves if they want board representation, then elect up to a third of a company's directors.

Worker participation received a big push in France recently when a national commission recommended 70 changes in law and business practices aimed at increasing worker "co-surveillance," or otherwise making working conditions more humane. The most important proposal calls for one-third worker representation on company boards.

Better Educated. The French report also presented many of the arguments why worker participation should be promoted by the government. Chief among them is the emergence of the "new worker"—better educated, more distrustful of authority, more discriminating toward his working environment than his predecessors of a generation ago. His rise has resulted in absenteeism (425 million work days lost in France alone in 1972) and a growing reluctance on the part of young people to work in factories. Mitbestimmung, or some form of it, is seen as a way of reconciling the new worker and his boss.

There are some indications that Mitbestimmung can indeed work that way. During a decline in the West German coal industry that cost 400,000 miners their jobs between 1957 and 1973, management and workers consulted closely on mine closings and programs for re-employment, retraining and early retirement of employees. Result: the shrinkage was accomplished with no major labor disputes. Mitbestimmung, says Karl-Heinz Briam, labor representative on the board of Krupp's steel operation, "is something like marriage with no divorce possible."

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