Thursday, June 22, 2017

Employment Relations in a Post-Industrial Post-Democracy Era?

If one had to come up with a shorthand for the values of the field of employment relations, a strong contender would be “industrial democracy.” For starters, employment relations scholars seek to understand the rules of the workplace. Organizations are therefore seen as industrial governments that can be autocratic, technocratic, or democratic. The employment relations ideals of fairness and self-determination are best served by the democratic form of industrial government (“industrial democracy”) in which unilateral, unchecked managerial authority is replaced by orderly rules, participatory rule-making, checks and balances, and due process in dispute resolution. That (non-Marxist/critical) employment relations scholars see the employment relationship as analogous to a pluralist political society in which multiple parties (e.g., employers and employees) have legitimate but sometimes conflicting interests reinforces the preference for decision-making and dispute resolution processes that respect a diversity of rights and interests.  

The main vehicle for delivering industrial democracy has typically been labor unions  because imperfectly competitive labor markets and capitalist legal systems favor employers over individual employees. Labor unions that are legally and financially independent of management are the needed counterweight to managerial power, and are therefore necessary for giving employee voice legitimacy through the negotiation and enforcement of collective bargaining agreements. Consistent with this thinking, labor unions have a long history of promoting collective power as a way to bring democracy to the workplace, and to strengthen political democracy by creating independent and responsible rather than subordinate and repressed citizen-workers. 

We’ve already seen what happens to employment relations and labor unions when the “industrial” part of industrial democracy disappears. That is, the decline of manufacturing and traditional blue collar occupations have paralleled the steady decline in private sector U.S. union density. Though the relationship isn’t necessarily causal, it’s hard to deny that labor unions have struggled as the nature of the economy and the workforce have shifted, and probably not coincidentally, the size of the field of employment relations has simultaneously declined.  

But clearly there should be an important space for post-industrial worker voice as well as for employment relations scholarship. Unions are experimenting with different representation strategies, new institutions (especially worker centers) are emerging to give non-traditional workers a voice, and employment relations scholarship is broadening beyond a traditional focus on labor unions.

But perhaps a new challenge looms…the decline of support for democracy. In “The Democratic Disconnect” (Journal of Democracy, July 2016), Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk report disturbing trends from individual responses to the World Values Survey. For example, 26 percent of U.S. millennials characterize choosing leaders in free elections as unimportant and 24 percent indicate that democracy a bad way to run a country. These percentages are significantly higher than those reported by older generations. Similarly, 72 percent of Americans born before World War II say that it’s essential to live in a democracy, but among millennials that percentage plummets to 30 percent.

I incorporated these statistics into a presentation I made earlier this month entitled “Two More Problems Facing the Field of Employment Relations, and the Need for Inclusion” at the annual conference of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA). To be honest, I did this primarily to be provocative, and maybe we shouldn’t place much weight on attitudinal surveys. But other indicators keep popping up. In "Why Republicans (and Trump) May Still Win Big in 2020 —Despite 'Everything'," Grover Norquist outlines how the Wisconsin strategy to eviscerate public sector unions (via Act 10) provides a desired model "for Republican political dominance" because "if Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics" (Ozy, May 28, 2017). In other words, Norquist is championing a blueprint for one-party politics. Other examples consistent with a decline in support for democracy include trends toward greater restrictions on free speech ("Under Attack," The Economist, June 4, 2016) and toward increased support for dictatorships ("America’s Foreign Policy: Embrace Thugs, Dictators and Strongmen," The Economist, June 3, 2017). 

The industrial change was a compositional one, not one in fundamental values. But if support for democracy is truly declining, this could be much more damaging for industrial democracy and for the field of employment relations. The tendency to defer to strong leaders in the name of efficiency and expediency is even stronger in business than in government. If democracy isn’t robustly supported in the political arena, it will presumably be even harder to generate support in the workplace. If achieving post-industrial workplace democracy has been a challenge, imagine the challenge of post-industrial post-democracy. 

So what's to be done? I don’t think there are any easy answers. We need to monitor these democracy-related trends, and if they are real, they need to be reversed. The industrial democracy values of employment relations continue to need champions. Whether post-industrial or not, the values and value of industrial democracy need to be explicitly recognized, not taken for granted.  

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