Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The IR Curmudgeon's View on Identity in Employment Relations

This past weekend I was at an ILR Review-sponsored conference “Toward New Theories in Employment Relations.” A predictable theme was the gig economy. But more interesting were repeated themes of the importance of ideas (whether from the bottom up rooted in individual cognition (a paper I presented) or from the top down in the form of contested ideologies) and the importance of identity. Identity politics, of course, are everywhere today, even in superhero movies (Black Panther).

This presents a particular challenge for employment relations because traditional scholarship has emphasized material interests rather than identity needs, and traditional institutions (especially labor unions) have been organized around materialistic class interests rather than (non-class) identities. That is, workers are portrayed simply as workers, not women, Latinxs, and the like. 

Or at least that’s how the traditional perspective is now painted. In my view, this simplification of the past is more accurate for industrial relations scholarship than practice.

That is, scholarship has seen workers as generic in theory, but in practice it's a different story: real workers and institutions have been anything but blind to identity issues. Indeed, it would have been better if they were. Go back 100+ years and many AFL craft unions were discriminatory and openly hostile toward anyone except white men. The Pullman Company trained African American workers for skilled positions to keep the skilled labor force divided by racial tension. Worker solidarity across occupations was also weakened through racial and gender segregation—on Pullman cars, for example, conductors were always white and porters were always black; men cleaned the exterior of the railroad cars, women the interior. So when appreciating the importance of identity in today’s worker centers—as just one example—we should not overlook the importance of racial identity in the struggles and victories of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters all the way back in the 1920s led by A. Philip Randolph and others (this is captured by the movie “10,000 Black Men Named George”).

This is not to deny that identity has become both more central and more complex in contemporary society—and therefore in contemporary employment relations practice. So continuing to deepen the theorizing and evidence around identity issues in employment relations is needed. But I think this will be most productive if we see this as building on past practice, and even on past scholarship, rather than as something that is seen as a break from the past. 

OK, I will admit that I have self-interested reasons for believing this. In particular, in a recent blog post I (selfishly) argued that my trilogy of efficiency, equity, and voice continues to be a powerful way to capture the key objectives of the employment relationship. Some might see these as more materialistic and as ignoring identity issues. Indeed, in my own presentation of efficiency, equity, and voice I have not explicitly recognized identity concerns. But I assert that the framework of efficiency, equity, and voice is flexible enough to include shifting conceptualizations of these interests. 

Moreover, while identity is different from interests, I think the way that identity concerns are realized and satisfied in the employment relationship is through (a) being treated in desired ways consistent with one’s identity demands, and (b) being able to express yourself in ways consistent with your desired identity. The first of these falls under the category of equity, the second under the category of voice. Put differently, in the context of the employment relations, violations of individuals' and groups' identity needs by discriminating against certain groups and by repressing expressions of that identity are violations of equity and voice in the employment relationship. 

Indeed, both equity and voice as key objectives of the employment relationship stem from the essential qualities of being human, which, in turn, means that workers as humans are entitled to dignity and self-determination. Identity is an essential part of dignity and self-determination, and hence of equity and voice. So even in this era dominated by identity politics and identity theorizing, the key goals of the employment relationship remain efficiency, equity, and voice. In the future, I will try to do a better job of explicitly noting the identity aspects of equity and voice.

So let’s continue to seek ways to deepen our understandings of identity within employment relations theorizing and practice. But personally I think it’s most productive to do so in ways that build on rather than reject where we’ve come from. And that preserves my own desired sense of identity…

No comments:

Post a Comment