A look at labor relations

UWL Professor of Management William Ross co-authored the 11th edition of a labor-management relations textbook, “The Labor Relations Process.”

Professor co-writes textbook covering labor’s history to emerging trends

Recent changes in Wisconsin laws have impacted labor unions in the state. But the badger state has a long history of labor, including being a pioneer in the development of workman’s compensation and unemployment insurance.

Readers will learn about labor’s history, as well as current and emerging trends, in the 11th edition of a labor-management relations textbook, “The Labor Relations Process.”

UWL Professor of Management William Ross co-wrote the book with an influential professor from his undergraduate years — Bill Holley of Auburn University.

With another co-author from Auburn, Roger S. Wolters, the authors have nearly a century of experience with the labor movement, labor relations and collective bargaining.

Q: In a nutshell, how did labor history start in the U.S.?

A: Labor unions are almost as old as the U.S. When people immigrated to America, they often enrolled in apprenticeship programs to learn trades from skilled masters. While the masters may have been skilled artisans, they sometimes were poor managers. Consequently, their apprentices organized to demand better working conditions — and to prevent certain practices, such as outsourcing work to poorly trained, poorly paid prison labor.

With the growth of factories in the late 1800s, unskilled labor also began to unionize.  However, unionization efforts encountered significant opposition, both from employers and the government. During the Great Depression when involuntary unemployment soared and wealth became more concentrated, the public came to sympathize more with union goals. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was passed by Congress giving most private sector workers the right to organize, should a majority of the workers vote to do so.

Q: What is one current labor issue discussed in the book?

A: Suppose you are a pro-union employee in a non-union firm, can you send an email to co-workers inviting them to a union organizing meeting after work? In recent years, there have been several legal issues pertaining to whether employees can legally use a private employer’s email system to solicit for a labor union. Courts have grappled with the medium itself: Is it equivalent to workers discussing the matter face-to-face, one-on-one in a breakroom at lunch which is protected activity under federal labor law? Is it equivalent to posting an announcement on a physical bulletin board which may receive greater regulation? Or is it equivalent to using the employer’s photocopier at the employer’s expense to print pro-union flyers which the employer can prohibit?

The NLRB has decided that employees do have a presumptive right to use their employer’s e-mail system to send union solicitation messages provided that the messages are sent during non-work time (e.g. lunch break).

Q: In  Wisconsin, we’ve seen a lot of changes related to labor relations such as the passage of Act 10. How did any of these close-to-home activities inform the book? 

A: For those who don’t know, Wisconsin has a long, interesting history with labor and employment relations legislation. Wisconsin was a pioneer in developing Workman’s Compensation and Unemployment Insurance in the early 1900s. Wisconsin instituted welfare reform and passed both a Family & Medical Leave law and a Business Closing and Mass Layoff law prior to similar federal legislation. It is important for UWL students to realize this state tradition.

In the public sector, Wisconsin was the first state to create a comprehensive collective bargaining system for state employees in 1959.  Admittedly, it is difficult to take a system that was designed for the private sector and apply it to the public sector where the following differences apply:

  • The same type of market forces do not exist.
  • Multiple parties get involved in public sector negotiations (through lobbying).
  • A civil service system already exists to protect employees from capricious management.
  • A system of checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches (designed to promote responsive government) reduces management unity when bargaining with unions. Even so, the labor relations system worked reasonably well in Wisconsin, usually substituting interest arbitration for strikes in order to protect public safety during labor disputes.

Act 10, which is discussed in the book, included numerous provisions to prevent a projected $3 billion state budget deficit. It required employees to pay a greater share of the costs of health care and pensions, similar to what is found in many private sector jobs. The law also included many public sector union provisions. Among these were the following:

  • Limits on wage increases for public sector workers to the inflation rate.
  • Shorter time limits on the length of union contracts.
  • No automatic union dues deductions from paychecks.
  • No ‘union shop’ provisions in contracts whereby everyone in the bargaining unit must join the union
  • Public sector unions must be re-certified each year.
  • University of Wisconsin faculty and academic staff no longer had the right to bargain collectively.

Act 10 “changed the rules of the game” making it harder for public sector unions to thrive over a multi-year period. At the time the law was passed, the Great Recession was forcing private employers and individual taxpayers to “tighten their belts” and the perception was that public sector workers needed to “tighten their belts” too. Public sector unions were seen by many as an obstacle to fiscally responsible government. The law has remained controversial with many critics charging that it went far beyond what was necessary for fiscal restraint and balanced budgets. According to a 2016 article by Dave Umhoefer and Sarah Hauer of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, school districts now find it easier to replace poor performing teachers, but they also find that turnover is higher as school districts bid against each other to hire the best teachers – and bidding wars are not good for local school budgets.

Finally, like many aspects of labor-management relations, this can be thought of as a “swinging pendulum:” Generally, when Republicans are in power, legislation is often passed favoring employers (and at the federal level, NLRB rulings tend to favor employers); when Democrats are in power, legislation and NLRB rulings tend to favor unions. As power changes, the pendulum swings back and forth. The NLRB under President Obama was much more pro-union than it was under President Bush; it will be interesting to see how it changes under President Trump.

Q: What are “big takeaways” from the book that you want readers to understand or remember?

A: In addition to learning the basic facts about the labor-management relations system, I want students to realize the following:

  1. The employment protections, equal opportunity laws, and consumer protection laws that citizens enjoy have all been heavily influenced by organized labor and the efforts of labor leaders over the past 150 years; vigilance is needed to maintain these protections. Even so, neither labor unions nor managers have a monopoly on virtue.
  2. The labor-management system in the U.S. is based on voluntary negotiation and agreements.  Thus, it is a very flexible system that can adapt to unique work situations (e.g. labor relations in the construction industry is very different from that in manufacturing). Without this flexibility, there could be even greater involvement by the federal government forcing a “one size fits all” approach on all employers.
  3. The business management literature is full of “fads.” Sometimes a manager reads a magazine article that describes a procedure used in another country or industry and thinks “perhaps that will work in my company too.” However, when it comes to management ideas, it is the case of ‘buyer beware!’ Some procedures used in other countries are part of a complex labor-management relations system and if you remove those procedures from that larger system, they “may not work as advertised” or may contradict local labor laws – as VW found when they wanted to implement German-style “employee works councils” in the U.S.
  4. Even if a student never works in a unionized setting, the future manager needs to master certain skills (e.g. negotiation) and think about how policies (e.g. grievance procedures) impact workers.  What promotes fairness in the workplace? What is consistent with the law? While the text is not a “labor law” text, it does offer some managerial advice that, if followed, may help managers avoid violating the law.