WHICH SHOULD come first among a labor union's priorities--jobs or wages? A majority of workers at a mining and smelting plant in Kellogg, Idaho, thought that saving their jobs was more important. They voted to accept a 25 percent cut in pay and other benefit reductions demanded by a group of investors as the condition for reopening the recently closed plant. When steelworkers' union leaders failed to ratify the agreement and the jobs vanished, many of the workers felt betrayed.
The anger of the laid-off workers is easy to understand. But so is the position of the union leaders. The investors' offered a no-negotiation deal with a one-week deadline for acceptance. The local union members' vote to accept the proposal caught union leaders by surprise on the eve of the offer's expiration. It would not be surprising if national union leaders were loath to accept a stiff take-it-or-leave- it deal that might have set a precedent for major steelworkers' negotiations elsewhere in progress.
One of the major reasons why nationwide unions were formed, after all, was to protect workers in one- industry towns like Kellogg from being browbeaten by local employers into accepting bad deals. In the decades of prosperity after World War II, strong unions were able to deliver a steadily rising standard of living to their members by focusing on wages and benefits first and employment impacts second, if at all. Concessions were sometimes agreed to when plant closings were at risk, but these were usually minor and confined to special situations--and frequently, as union leaders remember, the plants closed anyway.
When an industry is thriving, propping up marginal producers is no more in the long-run interest of labor than it is of management. Now, however, with many basic industries under severe stress, both labor and management need to reassess their positions. In the last few months major unions have agreed to "give- backs" of wages and benefits affecting hundreds of thousands of workers. An important feature of most of these deals, however, was a recognition by management that concessions--including more participation for workers in management decisions--were called for on their side of the table as well.
Reviving the nation's industrial strength will require more than bringing the compensation of over- favored workers back into line with the prevailing norms of American industry or its strongest international competitors. Improving productivity may depend far more on better management than on speeding up or streamlining current methods of operation. And better management may require abandoning, or at least modifying, the adversarial tradition in U.S. labor-mangement relations.