Work rules are not made to be broken or hastily revoked in pursuit of hoped-for savings.
Employees, whether unionized or not, always work under conditions — implicit or explicit — that affect both the productivity of their labor and the extent and efficiency of their use. Provisions that define a set of “work rules” are effectively the working conditions that guide employee production.
In general, rules involve a rough tradeoff between productivity and the value of the work. For example, forcing employees to work faster may increase output, but it will also likely decrease quality. Other rules, like the right to take coffee breaks, might enhance employee satisfaction, but in highly time-sensitive situations, lower productivity. Safety rules such as the wearing of protective clothing or working through a check-list of inspection items before beginning work protects the value of the work and worker, but will delay getting the job done. Still other rules, such as those governing the size of crews, the assignment of work hours, and the application of seniority, affect both the quality of a worker’s job experience and his or her productivity.
Changing these rules should be done very cautiously. The results of academic research designed to measure the effect of work rules reveals that depending on the types of rules and conditions of employment, expected savings are vastly overestimated. One problem with calls for rule changes is that they are too often solely attributed to an employer’s perceived need to lower costs. Even in unionized settings, employers have a comparative advantage in setting the rules regulating physical conditions, safety and health, work speeds, production methods, job design, technology use, and a host of personnel policies. The City of Chicago, like any private employer, would prefer setting work rules to lower the cost per unit of labor. In doing so, savings may be realized, but they would be unproductive if they came at the expense of the skill level of the work, or the quality or number of workers willing to do the job.
Rules should be negotiated to maximize the joint benefit of workers and employers. Doing so requires balancing cost with a preservation of jobs that require useful skills, provide the security of full-time employment, and work done in a safe and healthy environment.
Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.