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The Rise, Fall, and Replacement of Industrywide Bargaining in the Basic Steel Industry

Author(s):Magnum, Garth L.
McNabb, R. Scott
Reviewer(s):Stanger, Howard R.


Published by (March, 1998)

Garth L. Mangum and R. Scott McNabb. The Rise, Fall, and Replacement of Industrywide Bargaining in the Basic Steel Industry. Labor and Human Resources Series. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. xvii + 209 pp. Tables, figures, notes, bibliography, and index. $62.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-56324-982-0; $21.95 (paper), ISBN 1-56324-983-9.

Reviewed for H-Business by Howard Stanger , Buffalo State College

Economists Garth Mangum and R. Scott McNabb have written a very good overview of collective bargaining in basic steel since the historic 1937 agreement between the leader of the industry’s oligopoly–U.S. Steel–and the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC), later the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). Their emphasis is on the interaction of both product and labor markets on collective bargaining structure and outcomes (most notably wages), benefits and industry viability. They also pay careful attention to managerial choices pertaining to technology and labor relations.

Since the birth of the U.S. Steel Company in 1901, oligopoly defined the structure of the American basic steel industry. But unlike most oligopolies, steel was characterized by product and technological homogeneity and regional fragmentation. The relevant labor market required identical skills in each mill, little labor pool competition as a result of geographic separation in the product market, and formal internal labor market structures offering workers a high degree of job security and long-term attachment. Given the cyclical nature of the industry, layoffs occurred periodically. This structure enabled the USWA to bargain for above-average wages. One problem was that market fragmentation had spawned wage inequities within single plants and companies and across firms and regions. The union’s drive to remedy wage inequities, along with the peculiarities of the industry, created favorable conditions for industrywide collective bargaining.

Both labor and management found this centralized form of bargaining in their best interests. According to the authors, the union had pursued industrywide bargaining in the 1950s in order to take wages out of competition, to assure that every steelworker doing the same job got the same pay throughout the industry, to put industry competition on the basis of managerial competence rather than the ability to obtain cheap help, and to ensure wage differences among firms did not force a race to the bottom. Company concerns were parallel: to assure that no competitor was able to gain the advantage of cheaper labor rates and to prevent the union from whipsawing wages upward by shutting down one firm while the others supplied the homogeneous product, then forcing the pattern one by one on the rest (p. 93).

Labor cost uniformity was not expected; in fact, the parties accepted a narrow range of wages so long as all competitors were part of the collective agreement. Within the broad parameters of economic laws, the authors discuss other factors which contributed industrywide bargaining. For example, between 1942 and 1947, the steelworkers and a number of large firms jointly established the Cooperative Wage Study (CWS) which, through extensive job evaluation, sought to remove wage inequities in northern states. By 1954, with the eradication of the southern wage differential, “the steel industry had virtually a single wage scale for almost all of the steelmaking operations under contract with the USWA, irrespective of size, relative profitability, or geographical location. Given an industrywide wage structure and job evaluation format, it then requires no great intellectual leap to see that formalization of industrywide collective bargaining was the next logical step” (p. 40).

Other factors had to fall in to place, however. In 1955, the USWA announced that union president David J. McDonald would head all negotiation committees to ensure contract uniformity. Second, in 1956, management and labor respectively, created the Coordinated Committee Steel Companies (CCSC) and the USWA’s Basic Steel Industry Conference (BSIC) to conduct negotiations. Finally, federal government gave its imprimatur to industrywide bargaining during World War II and the Korean conflict. In 1956, industrywide bargaining was officially born.

During the 1959 negotiations, the first industrywide bargaining round, a 116-day strike occurred, which, according to the authors, planted the “seeds of dissolution” of the bargaining structure. During this time, steel imports became a competitive concern for steel management. Exacerbating the industry’s woes was management’s hesitance–based upon inaccurate industry forecasts– to modernize facilities. When they did invest, they implemented quickly outmoded processes. These missteps created opportunities for foreign steel firms and, by the 1970s, leaner nonunion minimills. The results were devastating: falling industry profit rates, the shuttering of obsolete plants, divestment out of steel, and zero net investment between 1955 and 1980. The book’s institutional and economic framework prevents a discussion of the human and social costs of dislocation which, in this reviewer’s opinion, is an important consequence of bargaining and a serious omission.

To deal with frequent strikes in the post war period which forced steel users to seek other suppliers, primarily foreign producers, the parties established the Experimental Negotiations Agreement (ENA) in 1973. In exchange for lucrative compensation gains, the USWA gave up its right to strike. This potential solution to the industry’s plight was nullified by the inflationary economy of the 1970s, which made the ENA a very costly pact as compensation costs drastically cut into firm profits. In 1980, reeling from the ENA’s deleterious effects, the CCSC unilaterally ended it and girded itself for the 1983 round of negotiations which began early in 1982.

The 1983 agreement was the first concessionary contract for the USWA. Contemporaneously, the union experienced a change of leadership with the untimely death of Lloyd McBride and the ascendancy of the visionary Lynn Williams. With the industry and the union in flux, the oligopolistic wage structure and industrywide bargaining were vulnerable. By 1985, the CCSC abandoned industrywide bargaining after some firms withdrew immediately after the 1983 round. Diminishing “commonality of interests” based upon different financial positions was a major reason for its demise. The authors argue that developments affecting both product markets and technology between 1986 and 1995 rendered industrywide bargaining as obsolete as the many plants that closed in the preceding decades. However, the industry outlook became much brighter. American firms were now more competitive in international markets, with many engaging in joint ventures with foreign concerns to speed up modernization, raise productivity, and ensure survival. With help from union wage, benefit and work-rule concessions during the 1983 and 1986 rounds, output per employee rose a phenomenal 40 percent between 1986 and 1993. Profits also turned up.

The search for a new bargaining structure began in 1986 with the return of single company agreements. The authors go into detail regarding individual contract settlements in this and subsequent rounds of negotiations. By the 1990 round, wage and benefit cuts had been restored. One major difference between this era of single company pacts was the end of U. S. Steel’s leadership. With its corporate name changed to USX to reflect its diversification strategy into oil and gas, U. S. Steel was no longer the chief labor policymaker and lead agreement. The bitter six-month strike there in 1986 created an even stronger adversarial labor relationship, just as anachronistic as industrywide bargaining. This would become meaningful during the 1993-94 round, when the USWA unveiled its “New Directions” strategy of labor-management cooperation. It is in this area that the authors make new contributions to the literature on steel labor relations. Promoted by Lynn Williams, New Directions has at its core two key principles: 1) that no group has a greater stake in a company than employees, and 2) the best path to ensure business success was to involve employees in business decisions. For its part, the union “would agree to long-term contracts, some relaxation of restrictive work rules, and cooperation in reducing steel company workforces, as long as that was accomplished by attrition. In return, the union would require a high degree of job security for its membership, adequate funding arrangements for the company’s ‘legacy costs, and a greater say in how the steel companies were run” (p. 134). Inland Steel was the first to agree to this approach when it signed a six-year deal. The union won decision-making authority at all levels of the company. By the end of the round, all major firms signed similar deals, with slight firm-specific deviations, including the level of union involvement. Overall, a general pattern re-emerged. Mangum and McNabb explore New Directions and other innovations such as the jointly-established, industrywide Career Development Program (1989) through a handful of interviews and McNabb’s personal experience as a program counselor at the Institute for Career Development in Indiana. While the generalizability of a very limited number of persons interviewed can be questioned, the are careful not to draw firm conclusions. Progress at certain facilities of National Steel and Bethlehem Steel has been offset by initial failures at certain U.S. Steel and LTV plants. The authors are correct to note that high trust relationships and commitment are necessary to make innovative workplace programs succeed. The reverse also holds. They also contend that the USWA’s new program could have only come about by a “thoroughly chastened management–and only in the absence of the dominant industry leadership that had prevailed prior to 1985″ (p. 169).

At present, even with basic steel doing quite well for a mature industry, the future of labor relations and bargaining structure are indeterminate. Still, the authors return to their conviction that there is a strong link between product and labor markets. They argue that New Directions tightens this link: “Instead of merely reacting to the product market within labor-market negotiations, the New Directions model, when fully utilized, would have the union participating as a partner in product-market decisions that affect the entire industry” (p. 192).

Mangum and McNabb do a nice job of reviewing the literature on the history of collective bargaining in the steel industry from institutional and economic perspectives. They also provide their audience with a heavy dose of industry economics–perhaps too much in places. The book is loaded with easy-to-read tables of relevant industry and employment cost data. For a single source, written in a straight-forward manner, this book has a lot to offer. However, it is not without some weaknesses. First, steel bargaining relations are rarely compared with other industries, particularly as it pertains to changes in the bargaining structure. The breakup of centralized bargaining structures has been going on in a number of industries since the 1970s. Industrial relations scholars have been examining the decentralization of bargaining in the United States and Europe. This growing literature was omitted by the authors. Second, the authors missed an opportunity to provide a theoretical or conceptual framework on the antecedents and consequences of bargaining structures. Here the literature is not as rich, but could still be useful for comparison. Finally, there is no discussion on the implications of decentralized bargaining on bargaining power and outcomes. In general, unions are disadvantaged by decentralized bargaining, although it can be argued whether the bargaining structure is either a cause or consequence of union weakness.


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII