Sunday, February 14, 2016

Labor Relations 101 as Told Through the Musical Newsies

I’m not sure whether to hope that my labor relations students saw the musical Newsies at the Orpheum during its stop in Minneapolis. On the one hand, it would be great if they had because it presents some enduring and important themes. On the other hand, how can my lectures compete with the highly-entertaining songs, dances, and staging? So maybe it’s better if they don’t see it…

In either case, an important labor relations theme brought to life is that a labor union is most fundamentally a group of workers who want to collectively improve how they are treated. In Newsies, the newspaper boys ("newsies") want to protest a hike in the price they are charged for buying papers to sell in 1899 in New York City. Someone points out that this would be a strike, but they think they can’t strike because they aren’t a union. They don’t have official leaders or rules. But lead character Jack Kelly corrects this mistaken view when he sings,

Even though we ain't got hats or badges,
we're a union just by sayin' so...

Another important labor relations theme is that wages and monetary items are important, but so too, are voice and dignity. The newsies sing this loud and proud:

Pulitzer and Hearst, they think we're nothin'.
Are we nothin'?
Pulitzer may own the world, but he don't own us.
Pulitzer may crack the whip, but he won't whip us.

But why collective action? Jack reminds us of a key industrial relations assumption. The newsies are living day-to-day and can’t go without work very long, whereas owners and employers like Joseph Pulitzer have extensive resources and can hold out longer. So individual workers are typically at a distinct bargaining power disadvantage. Unionization is simply a way to try to balance this uneven playing field. Well, as illustrated in Newsies and in many real-life situations, maybe not so "simple." And a value or approach certainly not universally-shared. But seeing institutions as important mechanisms for helping remedy bargaining power imbalances is a key industrial relations principle.

Lastly, another lesson is that strikes and the threat of being replaced can be a deeply conflictual and highly emotionally-charged situation. Even in the artistic venue of musical theater, this energy is channeled into probably the most powerful dance numbers I’ve seen—not only in Newsies, but even more so in Billy Elliot. Yes, the alignment-of-interests-unitarist-HRM numbers in Kinky Boots are highly entertaining. But not as powerful. Now if only I could figure out how to write Hormel: The Musical. Wouldn’t “Cram Your Spam” be a catchy number?


  1. Very informative and entertaining too. Thanks

  2. This is a unique way to give information..

  3. This is a unique way to give information..

    1. Absolutely. And what a way to explain the points. The points are so correct and very well explained..

  4. "Voice and dignity", was thinking might be more important than wage and monetary items at times. Sadly the newsies are at disadvantageous position in collective bargaining, points towards the pluralist view of employment relationship.

  5. As HR Managers, we need to promote high road strategies, thus, leveling the playing fields in an ethical way.

  6. Very interesting and insightful article. We need to understand that the employees, whether organized or unorganized, have the way of showing their strength at times. This is also an unorganized group, but still stood only because of rightly said "Voice and Dignity." Though, at this particular time, they may be at disadvantage, but with the time other groups or local political conditions may also support such employees.

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  8. interesting and informative.. deep insight too

  9. Very true, just by getting together to make their voices heard, makes them one strong voiced union.

  10. Interestingly so; unions do not necessarily need to be made up also by high ranking individuals. But even when common workers come together to make bilateral demands, they have a stronger voice and stand a good chance of getting what they want. Also true is that workers can not endure the difficulties that come from not working for long as would employers and business owners who have stashed away a good amount of resources but unionisation would help ensure that workers are not fired unjustly and are fairly treated to try to balance the unevenness of the playing field. Thank you Professor. This piece is well appreciated.

  11. Funny, but informative way to explain the topic. I like it.

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  13. The difference in the work environment is leveled through collective voices from the workers who fight for their rights.This has payed through building structured trade unions with different forms and functions.This article gives a insight view of the unstructured workers with the consideration of their basic rights and dignity.