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'?
No!
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?

145 comments:

  1. Very informative and entertaining too. Thanks

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

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

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

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    2. An insight from history making this lesson more clear to understand.

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  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.

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

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  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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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. interesting and informative.. deep insight too

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

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  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.

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

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  12. unique way to give informations

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  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  14. 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.

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  15. Nice article, while reading I was wondering if the organization and managers know the needs of their workers, things can be sorted. Unions are the only way left for workers to get their needs heard, if it is worked out bilaterally.

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  16. Very informative and entertaining too

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  17. This points to the fact that even if employees are at a disadvantage they still have a voice and if your voice and actions hurt the company and are unjust than changes can occur even at a heavy cost to employees. Our ancestors made great sacrifices for the future generations.

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  18. A great article,everything surfaces at some point but its important how is met and handled onwards.

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  19. so nice and great, i get how you write it is very interesting

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  20. I enjoyed the witty humor! :) Also shows the importance of unionizing!

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  21. A good way to express oneself is via singing

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  22. Good article. This musical shares reality of unionism.

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  23. Interesting and engaging way to deliver concept of unions. Thank you Prof. Budd for such a nice read .:)

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  24. Good article...and new insight to me on this play.

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  25. It is very useful for me thanks.

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  26. Thanks, it's very informative and interested.

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  27. We shouldn't overlook the power of any union as its role is unique to make or mar society.

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  28. There should always be a delicate balance between managers and workers through unions to ensure bilateral and proactive management in a unionized organization.

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  29. We all know where the manufacturing processes have gone to!

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  30. What an entertaining way to deliver such an informative piece. Thank you.

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  31. Only union can help workers in getting what they need because together we are strong.

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  32. Very informative and interesting article

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  33. Very informative and interesting

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  34. As a musical theatre professional taking your Coursera course, I was delighted to see this article and learn that you're a fan! It might interest you to know, if you don't already, that unions are a very big part of the theatre industry. Their rules have determined cultural norms that influence how shows are run from Broadway to middle schools.

    I'm actually part of a tour that is slated to come through St. Paul next year.. maybe I'll see you there!

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    1. Thanks for leaving your comment...glad you appreciated the connection to your world! In some of my published work I've advocated for a model of "employee empowerment unionism" in which Hollywood, theater, and sports unions can be a model for other occupations by combining standards with flexibility. I mention that here: https://whitherwork.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-soul-and-scope-of-labor-union.html. Good luck with your tour...I hope it goes as planned...as yes, maybe I'll see you there!

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  35. Useful for academic and employment related issues

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  36. excellent writings .....informative .....

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  37. It is proper way to give information.

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  38. nice to have the book and course

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  39. Nice article, while reading I was wondering if the organization and managers know the needs of their workers, things can be sorted. Unions are the only way left for workers to get their needs heard, if it is worked out bilaterally.

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  40. Very interesting and a different way of teaching.It is also very entertaining. Excellent job with a lot of creativity.

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  41. Veey informative and interesting....

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  42. Nice and easy to understand

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  43. Great way of presenting what's at stake. Quite informative.

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  44. Very informative and interesting too. Thanks

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  45. Simply to make understand the power of unionization.
    "Unionization is simply a way to try to balance this uneven playing field."
    Good writing.

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  46. This have enlarged my thinking about management and human resource management

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  47. Indeed the importance of Management and human resources Management cannot be overemphasized.

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  48. This has made the lesson well understood.
    Labor and dignity are the major characteristics of labor unions.

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  49. This has made the lesson well understood.indeed the importance of management and human resource management cannot be overemphasized.

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  50. Thanks , very helpful. High Road strategy seems to be the way

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  51. It's to important in human resources

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  52. The world is a class we just have to open our minds

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  53. Very informative as usual! Many thanks!

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  54. Very informative. Unionisation is all about a common goal

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  55. Great analogy to get the point across

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  56. This is really great and helpful many thanks for you

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  57. An Interesting and informative piece;
    Placing the labor unions policies or workers interest first is a nice value,this will bring about positive output.

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  58. Interesting way of delivering the information. Good read.

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  59. This is interesting and helps understand the importance of union better

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

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  61. Most definitely informative. Thank you for sharing.

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  62. Most definitely informative. Thank you for sharing.

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  63. Had to read this again. Thanks for sharing. Very timely.

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  64. Very important topic. Without Labour unions/Strike workers will be intimidated, harassed and relegated to slaves in their respect companies.

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  65. Nice article.its very informative

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  66. Many people see the Union as a problem, but I see them as a helper; because when you know how to handle them, they are very helpful.

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  67. It is an interesting article, it talks about the importance of being in a unionized group, how it helps one in certain situations. it is a great work.

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  68. This article also teach us that if you treat your employees with dignity and support the unionized groups may not be needed as much as it’s today’s days.

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  69. Very informative, learnt a lot thanks

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  70. what is the meaning of "Cram Your Spam"?

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    1. Spam is a Hormel product, so cram your spam can be seen as call to boycott Hormel products, or more generally as a rejection of the company and its products. See https://thebaffler.com/salvos/cram-your-spam

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  71. It was interesting to read the reply on how the theater is unionized to protect their rights. I never gave that much thought into how that industry could unify. I assumed that it was highly competitive and therefore no one worked together under the surface. Thank you for the insight.

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  72. This information is really important for managers to know how to manage their employees in an effective and efficient manner.

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  73. Thank you Prof. for sharing. This is extremely informative yet easy to digest.

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