December 22, 1964

NLRB Kills Boulwarism And Closes An Era

"Boulwarism" is dead!

This sad news may leave you somewhat less than crushed, but to those of us who edited employee magazines a decade ago it is an occasion for mourning.

The National Labor Relations Board has just ruled against the General Electric Company in a charge of unfair labor practices brought by the International Union of Electrical Workers. IUEW President James B. Carey welcomed the finding and declared exultingly, "The Board's decision hammers one more nail in the coffin of Boulwarism."

Boulwarism is the term applied to GE's bold labor relations program. The originator and leading practitioner of this short-lived art was Lemuel Boulware. He raised the company's communications activities to the same importance as the sales and production divisions.

He disdained the usual backing and filling of labor-management negotiations as hypocritical. His approach was to determine the maximum amount his company would pay and then present union leaders with the first, last and only wage offer.

The offers were fair and generally the best in the industry. Yet it galled IUEW leaders to bargain on a "take it or leave it basis." It took two long strikes for them to learn that Boulware meant exactly what he said. They hated Boulware, but as long as he was head of GE public relations they reached agreements with a minimum of fuss.

Back in the early fifties, I edited an employee magazine for the Michigan Bell Telephone Company and was an officer of the Industrial Editor's Association of Detroit. In these capacities I took part in many conferences and conventions for the trade. Always, the latest adventures of Boulware was the subject of lengthy discussion. His appearance as a speaker insured a big turnout.

I, and my fellow editors, gasped at Boulware's daring, his frankness, his blunt language. We all begged to be put on his mailing list for the GE magazine and company bulletins. The demand was so great that General Electric finally started charging a subscription price to the thousands of industrial editors all across the country who wanted the material to wave under the noses of their timid executives.

Except for a few notable exceptions like General Electric, most corporations are ultra-conservative in communicating to "outsiders" — whether they be newspapermen, housewives, stockholders or hourly-rated employees. This reticence comes from years of harassment — first from the old Wagner Labor Relations Act and then from the NLRB.

Painful experience has taught them that plain language and effective presentation of their viewpoints leads too often to expensive and annoying investigations.

The recent NLRB ruling is a case in point.

The politically appointed board said General Electric was guilty of a concerted campaign of illegal labor practices, including attempts to, "disparage and discredit" union officials and refusing to budge from an opening contract offer.

The company accused the board of "seriously weakening the whole concept of collective bargaining" and immediately filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals. The case seems certain to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One member of the five-man NLRB board, Boyd Leedom, dissented from the majority, saying he was "disturbed" that GE was found guilty of bad faith in company communications to its employees.

Another member, Howard Jenkins, joined in the ruling but objected to the finding that GE refused to budge from its opening "fair and firm" contract proposal. He contends the government should not interfere in either a company or union right to make an offer and stick to it or back down at any given point in negotiations.

The two dissenting opinions pinpoint the inequities of labor-management laws in general, and of administrative application of labor laws specifically.

The American sense of fair play rebels at a situation in which one contestant has one arm tied behind his back while the other has a horse shoe in both gloves. It was wrong back at the turn of the century when unions suffered legal discrimination. Putting the shoe on the other foot hardly brings the scales of justice in balance — if you will permit me to mix metaphors.

Unions keep up a steady barrage of disparaging comment about business leaders in the labor publications. During contract negotiations the vituperation is downright libelous. Yet this is OK, as far as the NLRB is concerned — the information is to the union's own members. Employees are treated as the private property of unions — the employee's responsibility and loyalty to his company is not recognized.

I speak from firsthand knowledge when I tell you — and both company and union negotiators deny otherwise — that it is common practice for the union to first ask about twice what it is ready to accept, and the company first offers about half what it is ready to give. It generally takes four or five weeks of routine meetings to trade off the unimportant details and grievances, then one or two weeks of intensive across-the-table sessions to split the differences.

Both sides give an inch at a time to protect themselves from losing bargaining points. It's sort of like the old practice of trading with Indians — you put your wampum on the barrel head alongside the beaver pelt. After a bargain is struck — and you and the Indian sense the moment of trust — each lets go his prize and grasps the other simultaneously.

Boulware was an honest man who demanded fair play. But he was reluctant to play the game of negotiation which justified the jobs of company labor relations experts and union leaders. His "ism" was bound to be rejected by those most intimately affected by it.

It has been shot down finally by publicity. No matter what the Supreme Court does about it, the NLRB's finding becomes grist for endless legal arguments. As a policy, Boulwarism no longer is effective.

Still those of us who cherish the direct, simple life lament its passing. For a moment in history, it almost seemed possible that common sense would triumph.

 

Author: Lindsey Williams

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