It’s hard to find many people happy with the choices in tomorrow’s U.S. presidential election. Setting aside the troubling personal qualities that have been so apparent, it’s difficult not to be leery (at best) of Trump’s populism-at-its-worst and Clinton’s elitist-insider-insularity. If only both sides had paid more attention to industrial relations values and institutions over the past several decades rather than actively destroying them (Reagan, Thatcher, Walker, etc.) or just giving them lip service (Clinton, Obama, etc.), then maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Industrial relations values embrace the sanctity of human dignity for all workers and their communities, and respect the needs of stakeholders with distinct interests and unequal power. This means that markets—whether labor, financial, or otherwise—don’t work for everyone, and the sanctity of free markets should be rejected. Industrial relations institutions therefore seek to bring a greater balance to the marketplace to help them work better for all by balancing efficiency, equity, and voice, often in collective rather than atomistic ways. The classic example is collective bargaining which (ideally) brings solidarity to the workforce and empowers them with a voice, but requires bargaining, often at a local level, in which a business’s needs can be addressed and balanced with workers’ interests.
But for whatever set of complicated reasons, these industrial relations values and institutions have been weakened over the past several decades, and the academic field of industrial relations has shrunken as well. Instead, individualism, personal responsibility, and free market thinking dominate. Workers were assured that the benefits of free trade, deregulation, and increased financialization would trickle down and lift all boats, and that everyone would have the opportunity to work with purpose and meaning if they adopted the right mindset.
Instead, many have been left behind as illustrated by the sharp increase in inequality since the 1980s, and we live in polarized and polarizing times. Economic insecurity seems to frequently bring out the worst in people. And thus we have a distasteful form of populism that seeks to blame other workers and shut others out rather than building solidarity, respect, and inclusion. And we have anti-elitism which becomes anti-intellectualism and contempt towards science, education, and the arts as well as towards good government. Again, rather than bringing society together, fault lines emerge.
At a fundamental level, this disaffection is what industrial relations seeks to avoid. The construction and maintenance of institutions that provide checks and balances would have provided greater equity so people don’t feel left out, and greater voice so that people feel more on equal footing with the elites. But this would have required an embrace of industrial values around solidarity, inclusion, voice, pluralism, and compromise rather than individualism, self-interest, and free markets driven by insider elites.
Perhaps the consequences of the marginalization of industrial relations are now coming home to roost. On the Republican side of the aisle, the threat to the Republican establishment presented by the popularity of Trump has arisen out of disaffection with the Republican Party’s inability or unwillingness to replace the earlier industrial relations system with something that provides equity and voice instead of just individualism and free markets. On the Democratic side of the aisle, the skepticism towards another Washington insider is similarly rooted in policy making that has been top down rather than inclusive, and seemingly benefiting financial interests more than worker and community interests. Indeed, were the seeds of each's side demise planted, at least partly, by their own marginalization of industrial relations?
Those who embrace the industrial relations ethos are probably thinking “I told you so.” But it’s a sad chuckle indeed.