PERMANENT reduction in inflation depends on continuing the current pattern of moderation in wage and benefit settlements. Continued restraint will depend, in turn, on good-faith efforts by management to see that workers share in future benefits of their immediate losses.
After a decade of spiraling labor costs, wage increases in major contracts have dropped sharply under the impact of high unemployment and ever-more intense international competition. If labor-cost restraint can be maintained through economic recovery, it promises long-run benefits for both industry and labor in higher productivity, improved international competitiveness and, ultimately, more well-paid jobs in the American economy.
Labor concessions in recent months have extended far beyond the well-publicized auto worker "give-backs." Workers in numerous other major industries and smaller companies have agreed to wage cuts or freezes. Even more important for long-run competitiveness may be a trend toward relaxing restrictive work rules -- inflexible work assignments and output standards, overly generous work breaks and the like -- that have inflated production costs and impeded introduction of new technology.
With unemployment as high as it is, it's not surprising that workers have been willing to make concessions to save their jobs. What might seem more surprising is the extent of rank-and-file resistance. But in companies where management continues to regard its employees as, at best, a necessary evil, workers have reason to be skeptical about whether their sacrifices will pay off in anything but higher dividends for stockholders and more perks for executives. Once the threat of bankruptcy has been lifted, there's not much reason to expect that these workers won't return to their old jobs-be-damned approach to wage and benefit bargaining.
That's why many companies are taking a lesson from the Japanese and sweetening their wage-concession packages with provisions that offer workers a more explicit partnership in improving their companies' economic prospects. At the extreme, the Ford Motor Company is experimenting with a lifetime job guarantee along Japanese lines. Not many companies are willing or able to do that, but many others are trying out various forms of worker participation in production design, shop-floor practices and quality control -- and finding they pay off in higher productivity and better morale. Giving workers a stake in the production process isn't just good personnel practice. It's good business as well.