Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Cooperation—What Does it Really Mean?

When it comes to the practice of industrial relations, many people’s favorite word seems to be “cooperation.” During a union representation election in Tennessee, a Volkswagen executive bragged that “The Volkswagen Group is proud of its record of cooperation and co-determination between employees, management and the communities in which we live and work…it is a business model that helped to make Volkswagen the second largest car company in the world” and further indicated a desire for an American works council so that Volkswagen “would be able to work cooperatively with our employees.”  In Australia, conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently said “our government believes in cooperative workplaces” and called for “a fresh look at how the system is operating” to remove barriers to cooperation. Last year, a leader of the Australian Workers’ Union argued that “Australia’s national interest is best pursued through cooperation between labour and management.” The International Labour Organization’s SCORE training process to improve productivity and working conditions in small and medium enterprises in the Global South starts with “Module 1: Workplace Cooperation – A Foundation for Business Success.”

But what does “cooperation” really mean? Unfortunately, it is rarely defined, which is a problem given that not everyone has the same thing in mind when using the term. So Mark Bray, Johanna Macneil, and I decided to confront this head on and carefully look at the different meanings of cooperation. We start by defining cooperation as “working together to the same end” while noting that this still leaves a wide range of alternative perspectives on who is working together, how they are doing so, and whose goals are being pursued. So we really need to dig deeper.

Ultimately, we think it’s necessary to identify six key alternative perspectives on workplace cooperation. Why so many? Because people have different views about how the employment relationship works rooted in alternative views about the extent to which employers and workers have conflicting interests. First, from a neoliberal market perspective comes a generic view of cooperation:
#1) A market-based perspective in which cooperation is employers and employees complying with freely-entered contractual obligations in self-interested ways. 
Note that this is not a very deep conceptualization of cooperation in that it doesn’t require much except a lack of deep-seated conflict manifested in a refusal to agree to abide by the terms of a job. In this way, it’s similar to a self-interested pluralist view of cooperation (the main difference being the pluralist respect for the legitimacy of the other side):
#2) An adversarial pluralism perspective in which cooperation is employers, employees, and their representatives pursuing their separate goals and compromising with each other in ways that respect the legitimacy of each party’s interests.
Next is perhaps what many conservative commentators envision as workplace cooperation—or what worker advocates think conservative commentators have in mind:
#3) An autocratic unitarism perspective in which cooperation is employees following managerial directives for serving organisational goals, that in turn also are assumed to benefit employees.
This is a one-sided view of cooperation, which essentially requires workers to do as they are told. So it’s not really a case of working together, and hence not a vision of true cooperation. It might not even be truly unitarist if organizational goals are not pursued in ways that also benefit workers. Indeed, this leads to the critical or radical critique that sees cooperation as disguised domination:
#4) A critical (radical) perspective in which cooperation is acquiescence by employees to employer-established goals and practices.
In these ways, we have four perspectives on cooperation that don’t actually embrace cooperation as working together. The critical perspective sees cooperation as a mechanism to control workers; neoliberalism sees cooperation as largely irrelevant because it assumes the voluntary negotiation of cooperation before workers enter the employment relationship; adversarial pluralism sees cooperation on common interests as very limited, overwhelmed by conflicting interests that need to be bargained in a largely arms-length style; and autocratic unitarism largely assumes the right of employers to direct employees and expect employee compliance.

But cooperation can actually exist in a meaningful way. In fact, we think it’s important to understand two views that can both be seen as representing a legitimate degree of working together:
#5) A consultative unitarism perspective in which cooperation is employers and employees working together on organizational goals, in ways that are established by management through consultation. 
#6) A collaborative pluralism perspective in which cooperation is employers, employees, and their representatives working together on mutual goals and compromising on conflicting goals in ways that respect the legitimacy of each party’s interests.
These views are distinguished by the extent to which management and workers share a single common interest in the attainment of organizational goals (=unitarism), or there are some conflicts of interest (=pluralism). This crucial distinction points to different variants of cooperation with different roles for labor unions and different levels of workers’ rights in decision-making. But what they have in common highlights what’s needed for genuine cooperation: the parties avoid opportunistic wins, organizational and employees interests are pursued, collaboration is not limited to short-term issues, and there are high levels of trust and information sharing. In these ways, cooperation is much more than workers simply following managerial directions without complaint.

At the same time, in contrast to many writers who reject the value of cooperation in the absence of trade unions, our framework reveals legitimate space for genuine cooperation within a unitarist frame of reference which downplays employer-employee conflicts of interest. The key, we think, is to recognize that this is not unconditionally—in other words, only particular forms of unitarist HRM truly rise to the level of cooperation (otherwise, it's more like #3) autocratic unitarism).

In closing, cooperation is advocated by politicians and policy makers of all complexions, but they bring very different meanings and assumptions about how increased cooperation will be achieved and what its consequences will be. Better recognizing the values that underlie the respective positions on cooperation will encourage more rational debate and allow policy making based on evidence rather than obscure rhetoric and opinion. In practice, greater clarity over contrasting perspectives on cooperation can lead to greater understanding among workplace actors with differing views, and can set the stage for aligning visions by reconciling frames of reference that can be roadblocks to developing and sustaining genuine cooperation. This will not be achieved by hollow rhetoric or a limited understanding of alternative perspectives.


Source: Mark Bray, John W. Budd, and Johanna Macneil (forthcoming) "The Many Meanings of Cooperation in the Employment Relationship and Their Implications," British Journal of Industrial Relations. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjir.12473. Click here to read the full paper.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Why I Just Can’t Tell You What Works

A tweet from Rae Cooper reminded me that the World Congress for the International Labor and Employment Relations Association was in Seoul exactly a year ago. I have lots of great memories from that conference, but something else has stuck with me, too. In a session on conflict resolution someone made a comment along the lines of “just tell us what works.”

At first glance this might sound sensible. There are many approaches to conflict resolution and effective resolution is important. Indeed, most areas to pertaining to work and employment are complicated, and good practices are important for individuals, their organizations, and society. Of course it’s important to understand what works and what doesn’t. So what’s the problem?


The problem is that we can’t judge what works without knowing the criteria for success, but this is not usually stated. In conflict resolution, when someone says “just tell me what works,” they probably are implicitly equating success to settling the dispute. But everyone might not agree that this is the key or only measure of success. Some might be concerned with speed or cost, others with a fair outcome, others with due process. At a minimum, we need to explicitly specify objectives to know what we are evaluating something against. Moreover, this should prompt consideration of what this might be leaving out. By jumping straight to “what works?” we fail to recognize not only what’s prioritized, but also what’s excluded.

And in the world of work where things are complicated, there are likely to be multiple objectives that are important. I have long advocated for three broad objectives: efficiency, equity, and voice. But these can be in conflict with each other. In dispute resolution, for example, a fast resolution method (achieving efficiency) might not consider a lot of evidence (low equity) or allow for much participation beyond a unilateral decision maker (low voice). Alex Colvin and I then illustrated how these trade-offs are embodied in various methods for resolving employment disputes:
Source: John W. Budd and Alexander J.S. Colvin (2008) "Improved Metrics for Workplace Dispute Resolution Procedures: Efficiency, Equity, and Voice," Industrial Relations 47(3): 460-79.

As such, once we identify multiple objectives, it’s not just a simple matter of “what works.” Rather we face the more difficult problem of balancing trade-offs. This doesn’t just apply to conflict resolution, but applies broadly to the entire scope of employment. For example, different systems for setting the terms and conditions of employment and work rules embody different trade-offs between efficiency, equity, and voice:
Source: John W. Budd (2004) Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).
So what works in the world of work? Sorry, there are no easy answers. We must first explicitly identify objectives, consider what this both includes and excludes, and judge the various trade-offs.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

What Do Industrial Relations Scholars Research? From the Traditional to the Emergent (and a Hidden Message)

Last week I attended the 56th conference of the Canadian Industrial Relations Association on the beautiful UBC campus in Vancouver, and was asked to give some closing remarks. I decided to capture the conference’s topic by creating a Wordle or Tag Cloud from the presentation titles that shows more frequent words in a larger font. After doing the best I could to combine French and English words, here is the resulting Wordle (click to see a larger version):

So what are industrial relations scholars researching? The big words capture the central areas of the field: work, workers, and jobs. But lots of disciplines research work. The particular expertise that industrial relations brings is on the role of institutions in shaping work outcomes, and we can see these traditional topics front and center, too: labor unions, law, policy, institutions, and regulation. Bargaining, collective, and global are also words that appeared multiple times on the agenda.

But industrial relations isn’t only about labor unions, collective bargaining, and laws. They are harder to spot because of the smaller font associated with fewer representations on the agenda, but some human resources and organizational behavior topics are also present, such as selection, mindfulness, organizational change, sales contests, stress, and job performance. And like other disciplines, industrial relations is not static. We are confronted with new theories, methodologies, and practices that we must grapple with. So unfortunately for this Wordle approach, in some ways the most interesting words are the smallest in that they reflect emergent topics, including: robotization, the gig economy, platforms, Uberizing, Twitter, industry 4.0, guaranteed basic income, cannabis, and others.

Industrial relations also embraces comparative research. So for a Canadian association’s conference in which most of the attendees are Canadian, it’s not surprising that the largest geography-related words are Canada and Qu├ębec, with British Columbia and Ontario also make appearances. But if you look carefully, you can see a large array of other countries and regions that provide the setting for the research that was presented, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Italy, Syria, Australia, Bangladesh, and China.

Here is the upper-right quadrant of the Wordle so that you can get a better view.

And if you look closely, hopefully you can see what I can see… (click here if the animation doesn't work or to see the final result)


That’s right…efficiency, equity, and voice are also (or should be) central constructs in industrial relations. I presented this at the conference as somewhat of an inside joke because I developed the trilogy of efficiency, equity, and voice along with the accompanying triangle imagery in my first book, Employment with a Human Face. So it was nice for my ego when the big reveal led to a great audience reaction as they associated this with my book.

But there’s a serious point here. Far too often, industrial relations can study and support institutions without really questioning what they are trying to achieve. For example, the traditional approach to studying U.S. labor relations often focuses on an uncritical exploration of how the existing labor processes work: how unions are organized, how contracts are negotiated, and how disputes and grievances are resolved. But what’s missing is the why. Industrial relations processes and institutions are simply a means to more fundamental ends or objectives. What are these objectives? Under what conditions are collectively bargained work rules a desirable or undesirable method for achieving these objectives? In the 21st century world of work, are there better ways of pursuing these objectives? These are the central and engaging questions of industrial relations.

This begins with explicitly defining the objectives of the employment relationship. As I wrote in Employment with a Human Face (p. 180),
Because work is a fully human activity, employees are entitled to fair treatment and opportunities to have input into decisions that affect their daily lives. In other words, equity and voice should be added to efficiency as the fundamental objectives of the employment relationship. Efficiency, equity, and voice are therefore the key analytical dimensions for studying the employment relationship. The study of employment—human resources and industrial relations—is the analysis of the contributions of individuals, markets, institutions, organizational strategies, and public policies toward the employment relationship objectives of efficiency, equity, and voice.
To me, this is point of industrial relations as an academic enterprise. Which then connects to a related normative agenda. Again quoting from Employment with a Human Face (p. 181),
The modern employment relationship and the corporation are purposeful human constructs. Humans have always had to work to survive, but modern employment—working for someone else in a limited-liability corporation—is a creation of society. In that corporations are created rather than natural institutions, society must determine their ends and the rights and obligations that accompany the modern employment relationship—they are not preordained, natural, or beyond control. Achievement of economic prosperity, respect for human dignity [and identity], and equal appreciation for the competing human rights of property rights and labor rights require that efficiency, equity, and voice be balanced. The question for research, policy, and practice is therefore how to structure the employment relationship—how to govern the workplace—to achieve this balance.
As seen by the topics presented at CIRA, these questions are the continuing concern of traditional subjects in industrial relations as well as new applications to emergent topics as the world of work continues to change and evolve.