Monday, June 27, 2016

The Soul and Scope of Labor Union Strategies

The faculty organizing drive at the University of Minnesota has heated up with the recent launch of a website for faculty opposing the drive. The presence of an organizing drive anywhere naturally raises questions of what will a union do for the workers, and more broadly, how will they do it. Indeed, the traditional collection of union strategies is under great pressure to change in the 21st century, and the labor movement has been debating and experimenting with alternatives.

Unfortunately, these debates often confuse different dimensions of union strategies. The traditional collection of union strategies combines a workplace focus with passive rank and file participation. Alternative strategies can change only one, or both, of these dimensions. To understand these debates more clearly, then, it is important to clearly distinguish between what I call the scope and the soul of employee representation (see table below). The scope of representation describes the breadth of the representation activities—in particular, whether union activity is concentrated in the workplace or in the broader political and social arenas. A business unionism focus on collective bargaining is a workplace scope of representation; an alternative approach embracing community and social activism represents a broader social scope. The soul of representation captures how the representation is pursued or delivered, especially regarding the extent of rank and file participation. The rank and file are passive in the servicing model; alternative strategies seek to instead actively engage the rank and file in union activities.

The upper-left quadrant is where U.S. unions have traditionally been. Staying within a workplace focus (left-hand column) but moving away from a servicing approach in which union members passively consume union services yields a set of alternatives I have labeled "employee empowerment unionism." Rather than establishing standardized outcomes, such as tying wages to jobs or layoffs to seniority, employee empowerment unionism establishes the framework of procedures in which workers are then empowered to determine their own outcomes. Consider union strategies in professional sports. These unions focus less on negotiating specific outcomes and instead have established the parameters within which individual players negotiate their own salaries. These parameters include minimum standards and provisions for resolving disputes. A similar model is used for actors and might also be appropriate for college professors, doctors, and other occupations. Union involvement in establishing standards for a team to select new members or a team leader is another example in which the union’s role is not negotiating outcomes, but negotiating processes for empowering individual employees. As yet another example, the clerical workers union at Harvard University bargained for a problem-solving system that replaces a traditional grievance procedure with a framework that empowers employees to resolve their own workplace problems.

Some see labor unions as more than workplace mechanisms for winning economic gains; rather, unions are viewed as integral participants in a community’s and country’s civic and political activities. In the format of the table, the scope of representation is the broader social and political arena. The pursuit of equity and voice is not limited to negotiating favorable contract language governing the rules of the workplace, but extends to broader concerns of social justice throughout society. But what’s often overlooked is that even within social unionism, what I call the soul can be union leaders with passive rank and file participation, or it can be active union member participation. Union support for political candidates or lobbying for minimum wage increases without grassroots participation are examples of social unionism with a largely passive rank and file. In contrast, "social movement unionism" embraces labor unions as part of a broader social movement of community, social, and political activist groups that relies on active grassroots participation and mobilization. Organizer Jane McAlevey prefers the label “whole-worker organizing” because it seeks to integrate rather than separate out work issues from the rest of a person’s life and thereby “seeks to engage ‘whole workers’ in the betterment of their lives” (Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, 2012, p. 14).

Within each of the quadrants of the table, there are a variety of specific goals, objectives, and strategies that could be pursued. So unions and the workers they represent, or who are seeking representation, have lots of choices. In thinking about these choices, it's useful to distinguish between the soul and scope of representation.

Note: For the faculty organizing drive at the University of Minnesota, here are links to the websites of the supporters, those who oppose the drive, and the administration.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Working with Purpose…Not Just for the Productive

In April I had the pleasure of meeting Arthur Woods (@ArthurWoods), a co-founder of Imperative, who was in Minneapolis to speak at a couple of our events, including our annual HR Tomorrow conference. Imperative emphasizes working with purpose—creating a measure of purpose, identifying the importance of purpose, and helping companies facilitate purpose. In his presentation, Arthur eloquently articulated the meaning of purpose (“Purpose is something that we gain daily from relationships, doing something greater than ourselves, and from personal and professional growth”), and documented the value and importance of purposeful workers.

At the end of this stimulating and important presentation I commented that the only thing missing from his presentation was a picture of Karl Marx. It’s common to popularly associate Marx with communism, but first and foremost Marx was a profound social theorist of work whose concern with workers’ suffering led him to seek a more humane society. He thought that the commodification of work under capitalism leads to the loss of one’s essential humanness, a loss that Marx labeled “alienation.” In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx identified four ways in which workers are alienated under capitalism:
  1. Individuals are divorced from the product of their labor—the business owns and controls what the workers produce.
  2. Since business owners control how things are made, workers surrender control of their actions to someone else.
  3. Creative work is seen as an essential feature of being human so #1 and #2 deprive humans of their essential nature.
  4. Because people relate to each other through their work, they are alienated from each other.
If we set aside the fact that Marx’s alienation is inherent in capitalism and is not a subjective feeling of job dissatisfaction or a result of  undesirable job characteristics, in important ways the dimensions of alienation match Imperative’s emphasis on the importance of relationships, autonomy, and personal meaning in work. I think this is important because it reinforces the gravity of these issues, even if there are important differences. 

Imperative’s business case for organizations to embrace the importance of working with purpose is that purposeful workers are better workers. Since it is a business enterprise itself, I understand why Imperative makes this case. But there is an unsettling conundrum here in which the deep, non-instrumental importance of work is being justified on instrumental grounds. This seemingly implies that in cases where purposeful workers are not more productive, then imbuing work with greater meaning isn’t something important to pursue. Or that only purposeful workers are worthy of efforts to improve their working conditions. This is analogous to the problem with justifying corporate diversity programs solely by the business case (then these programs become subjected to the vagaries of executives’ perceptions of which employees, if any, are a source of competitive advantage, rather than diversity being seen as important for human reasons). From an industrial relations perspective in which labor is more than a commodity, the improvement of work (and diversity) is an important imperative for all workers, even when it doesn’t improve productivity or other instrumental outcomes.

Returning to Marx’s alienation, I raised this connection with Arthur as a way to emphasize that these are longstanding concerns in the world of work (so bravo!), and there have been numerous movements between Marx and now to try to give work and workers deeper meaning and respect (for example, the field of industrial relations). By bringing new data and case studies to the issue, I hope that Imperative can successfully expand upon earlier movements to embrace of the deep importance of work, which is also a goal of my book The Thought of Work. This is a deeply important issue, and a longstanding one. Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem to be on our side.

Happy May Day!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Everything you need to know about the employment relationship in one tweet

At the end of March, #ModernCollectiveNouns was a trending hashtag on Twitter. Here are some examples I saw:

A clutch of car mechanics.
A fraud of bankers.
A Kardashian of crap.
An avalanche of skiers.

My (ultra-academic) contribution to this was the following:

A market of economists. A unity of HR people. A plurality of industrial relationists. An alienation of Marxists.

My tweet probably didn't make much sense to most people, but students and other scholars should recognize this as capturing what I assert are the four key frames of references (or ideologies) on the employment relationship. I repeatedly return to these four frames of reference in my teaching and writing because they provide essential insights by revealing the roots of different views on labor unions, HR practices, and the like.

The first model of the employment relationship is derived from mainstream (neoclassical) economic thought and rests on a view of rational agents pursuing their individual self-interest in economic markets (because of the importance of self-interest, I label this the “egoist” model). Labor is viewed as a commodity, and only differs from other commodities in its tendency to avoid exerting full work effort (“shirking”). As labor markets are generally seen as perfectly competitive, they are embraced as the primary driver of the employment relationship. Under these assumptions, the egoist employment relationship is characterized by employees and organizations engaging in voluntary, mutually-beneficial economic transactions to buy and sell units of labor based on what the labor market will allow (and therefore outcomes are seen as fair), and abuses are prevented by labor market competition. HR practices largely implement what the market dictates, and unions interfere with the ideal operation of competitive markets.

In contrast, the unitarist model of the employment relationship views employees as psychological rather than economic actors. This model is most closely associated with scholarship in industrial/organizational psychology, organizational behavior, and human resource management such that the egoist model’s material economic interests are de-emphasized in favor of psychological interests such as satisfaction and esteem. Moreover, economic markets are seen as imperfectly competitive so profit-maximizing employers can choose their strategies for pursuing their organizational goals. And in the unitarist employment relationship, the optimal organizational strategies are those that align the interests of organizations and employees because a key assumption is that organizations and employees share a unity of all of their interests; thus, the label “unitarist” employment relationship. For example, jobs that are designed to be fulfilling will be rewarding to the employees, and the private or public sector organization will also benefit because these employees will be productive. High-road or high-commitment human resource management strategies are therefore key, unions are seen as unnecessary and as adding unproductive conflict.

An alternative perspective, the pluralist model, rejects the egoist model’s view of labor as a commodity traded in perfectly-competitive markets; rather, employees are viewed as human beings entitled to key standards and rights consistent with human dignity and citizenship. The pluralist model also rejects the unitarist view of largely shared organization-employee interests; rather, organizations and employees are seen as having a mixture of common and conflicting interests. That is, the pluralist employment relationship rests on a belief of a plurality of legitimate but sometimes-conflicting interests in the employment relationship. The classic example of conflicting interests is higher wages versus higher profits. These assumptions mean that institutional interventions are needed to better balance the bargaining power inequalities generated by imperfect labor markets, and to protect workers when organizations prioritize their own interests. Hence the important of industrial relations institutions such as labor unions and labor legislation to supplement high-road HR strategies.

The fourth and final alternative model of the employment relationship reflects radical, heterodox, and feminist scholarship in sociology, economics, and industrial relations is therefore labeled the critical employment relationship. Like the unitarist and pluralist models, this model sees labor as more than a commodity and also sees labor markets as imperfectly competitive. But where the critical perspective differs is in its emphasis on sharp conflicts of interests and unequal power dynamics between competing groups. Marxist and related perspectives focus on unequal power relations between workers and organizations, feminist perspectives focus on unequal power relations between men and women, and critical race perspectives focus on segregation and control along racial lines. In all of these critical perspectives, the employment relationship is seen as one piece of a larger socio-politico-economic system throughout which elites are able to perpetuate or reproduce their dominance, albeit with some accommodation of the interests of the weaker party in order to foster compliance and consent.

Returning to the #ModernCollectiveNouns hashtag, a friend of mine responded with "a propaganda of HR managers." Provocative! But for those who understand the competing frames of reference, this reflects an important critique from a pluralist or critical frame.

OK, maybe this isn't all that you need to know about the employment relationship, but it's an essential foundation. And maybe my #ModernCollectiveNouns tweet will help you remember this foundation.

If you want to see more applications of this framework, take a look at some of my earlier blog postings, such as:
Or for a more academic treatment, see my book chapter titled "The Employment Relationship" with Devasheesh Bhave from the Sage Handbook of Human Resource Management