Nation & World

Labor and management, together at last

5 min read

University hosts series of panels, talks on the future of labor in the U.S.

Harvard University hosted “The Future of Labor Forum” last week (Oct. 2), a first-ever conference that brought together prominent voices from the sometimes adversarial worlds of management, unions, government, and the academy.

“It was a coming together” of experts on neutral ground — and at a critical juncture for American labor, said William J. Murphy, director of labor relations in Harvard’s Office of Human Resources, which helped sponsor the forum.

During the day — at a keynote address and three panels — there was intense discussion of issues that affect every worker in every industry. Among them: health care, pensions, retirement, and proposed changes in collective bargaining that could signal the first major shifts in labor law in 70 years.

Underlying every other issue is one major question, said Murphy: What creative new ways will workers and managers find to talk to one another? The old ways often do not work in an era of declining union membership, emerging service industries, changing labor demographics, and pressures from the global economy.

“There will be a need for employees to have a voice in some form or fashion,” he said of evolving workplace democracies. “It may not look like your 1930s labor union.”

The panels took on three major issues: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a bill making its way through Congress; campus organizing; and the future of benefits, bargaining, and legislation.

The EFCA would make it easier for workers to organize into unions. Broadly speaking, it’s favored by unions and opposed by management. The bill passed the House of Representatives in March, but since then has been held up in a reluctant Senate.

One prominent labor issue is specific to higher education: the status of graduate students. Fundamentally, are they workers, or scholars? A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision earlier this year at Brown University defined graduate students in terms of scholarship and not labor. That reversed a 2001 decision made in a New York University case.

Labor issues at universities were the subject of a series of panels at Harvard the day before the Oct. 2 forum. Human resources and labor representatives from 22 universities met to share common interests and to discuss contemporary issues.

Nationally, the biggest labor issue is health care. Experts explored a recent decision by General Motors to establish a trust that shifts the burden of retiree health care from the company to the union.

On every panel were the key national experts on every issue — “impressive company,” said Murphy.

Just one example: Discussants on the EFCA panel included the top Washington, D.C., advocates for either side of the controversial legislation. Michael Eastman is labor policy director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is lobbying against the law. Sarah Fox is an attorney who does legal work for unions in favor of the bill.

“To watch them spar was a look into what happens in Washington every day,” said Murphy.

On the same panel was arguably the world’s leading labor economist, Richard Freeman. He’s the Herbert Ascherman Professor in Economics at Harvard, and faculty co-director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, co-sponsor of the forum.

And speaking of impressive company: The morning keynote was delivered by Thomas Anton Kochan from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Sloan School of Management, and “one of the foremost living scholars” in labor relations, said Murphy.

Kochan outlined the troubling present and uncertain future of American labor relations — and called for a shakeup in the way labor and management negotiate.

There’s rancor at the bargaining table, he said. Policies and laws are outdated. (The NLRB is an artifact of a 1935 law.) And labor agreements are taking longer than ever to resolve — an average of 30 days.

There is increasing interest in joining a union among unrepresented American workers, up from 30 percent in 1970 to 50 percent today. “But the reality is, they don’t have access to that institution,” said Kochan. Efforts to establish unions fail all but 10 percent of the time, he said.

Meanwhile, support for interest-based bargaining has leveled off, said Kochan. This negotiations tactic brings adversaries to the bargaining table in a search for common interests.

But he praised the “very innovative, very effective” interest-based negotiations used at Harvard. “That is a standard-bearer that I think we should be showing around the world,” said Kochan.

Despite “islands of innovation,” the bargaining process is broken, he said, and the agencies enforcing labor policies lack “respect, stature, and vision.”

But then there’s the good news, said Kochan, who is co-director of the MIT Workplace Center: “America is starting to wake up to the problems of labor policy.”

The high-pitched battle over EFCA has focused discussion on Capitol Hill, and the presidential race has put labor issues back into currency, he said. “We’ve got to make this a public debate.”