“What should happen when efficiency, equity, and voice conflict with each other?” (Budd, 2004, p. 1). In one of his earlier publications, Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice, John W. Budd opens the work by raising questions about the feasible scenarios that can emerge from a conflict within the major triad of labor relations: efficiency, equity, and voice. While he acknowledges that these three components may be “mutually reinforcing” (Budd, 2004, p. 1) in some scenarios, he notes that conflicts can often arise between efficiency, or employers’ concerns, and equity and voice, or employees’ concerns. To help ensure equity and promote laborers’ voices, unions were born, and these unions have been a crucial aspect of labor relations. Numerous privileges that many people may take for granted, including minimum wage, safe working conditions, and various labor-related laws, were often the result of unions’ hard work to protect laborers. However, despite unions’ pledge to protect the common interest of workers, who constitute a significant percentage of the American labor force, unionization has been increasingly viewed in a negative light. Given this increasingly negative perspective of unions, “it is important for students of labor relations to recognize their own stereotypes of labor unions and to replace them with an informed understanding of the central issues in labor relations” (Budd, 2012, p. 28). The four major schools of labor relations offer varying perspectives on unions, and knowledge of these four major schools’ respective positions on unionization helps people arrive at this informed understanding. These positions demonstrate that unionization can be favorable and unfavorable, depending on the circumstance, and they also demonstrate the need for the current labor movement to shift its focus from twentieth to twenty-first century concerns.
The Mainstream Economics School and the Human Resource Management School have a generally negative opinion regarding unions. Given that the Mainstream Economics School holds the belief that free market competition is the best solution for efficiency, equity, and voice to work together harmoniously, it finds unions to be an unnatural occurrence in a laissez-faire economic system. As Budd (2012) notes, “unions are seen as labor market monopolies that restrict the supply of labor and interfere with the invisible hand of free-market competition” (p. 32). In contrast to the Mainstream Economics School, the Human Resource Management School focuses primarily on management, and it asserts that issues with labor generally arise from poor management. Therefore, provided that companies have strong, effective management, then efficiency, equity, and voice can all be achieved, as employees’ needs are aligned with employers’ vision. Thus, independent unions are generally considered more disruptive than helpful, or “seen as adversarial and inimical to cooperation” (Budd, 2012, p. 35). Both of these schools, particularly the Mainstream Economics School, would be in agreement with the critical assessment of Jake Rosenfeld (2014), who states, “battles over collective bargaining became routinized and scripted, sapping much of the grass-roots militancy that had characterized earlier upsurges in unionization. Instead, members began to view their union as a service provider: In exchange for a fee (or dues), the union delivered certain predictable benefits” (pp. 10-11).

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On the other hand, the Industrial Relations School and the Critical Industrial Relations School have a generally positive opinion regarding unions. The Industrial Relations School believes that unequal bargaining power exists between corporations and individual workers, particularly since the emergence of enormous corporations, “which separated the owners of the production process from a new wage-earning class who did the manual work” (Budd, 2012, p. 35), is a relatively new development in human history. Therefore, this school considers unions favorable, as the absence of unions would allow employers to become “autocratic and authoritarian” (Budd, 2012, p. 36), particularly since the employers already hold a disproportionate amount of power. The Critical Industrial Relations School has some of the same beliefs as the Industrial Relations School, but it is generally considered far more radical and often characterized as “Marxist industrial relations” (Budd, 2012, p. 36). This school critiques societal institutions as a whole, which have permitted the flourishing of unequal bargaining power between employers and employees. Therefore, this school also holds favorable views of unions, as “strong, militant unions can aid workers’ struggles with capitalism by mobilizing and raising the consciousness of the working class and fighting for improved compensation, better working conditions, and greater control over workplace decision-making” (Budd, 2012, p. 37). Thus, both of these schools would be in firm agreement with the assessment of Michael D. Yates (2009), who argues that unions remain especially crucial these days and sagely points out, “in all capitalist societies, those who toil for others have formed labor unions to defend themselves and advance their interests in the face of powerful employers” (p. 34).

Based on the two different arguments, or perspectives, outlined in the preceding paragraphs from the four major schools of labor relations, it is clear that the labor movement has achieved myriad benefits for workers since its inception, notably standard wages and safe working conditions. For instance, due to the collective efforts of unions, laborers in the United States will not have to face the abysmal working conditions, such as the notorious manufacturing factories spread throughout China and other Asian countries. However, the global economic marketplace has also changed significantly since unions began to exert strong influence; specifically, increasing globalization and massive technological advances have dramatically altered corporate practices and working conditions, and these two developments have also enabled several companies to circumvent numerous labor privileges that had been initially established with unions. Therefore, it is also important to note that the current labor movement remains too entrenched in twentieth century concerns, and it should shift its focus to twenty-first century concerns. For instance, much of unions’ debates in the twentieth century have focused on laborers’ pay, and corporations have neatly circumvented these disputes by outsourcing jobs to nations that have less stringent regulations regarding pay, or even by entirely automating jobs. While many considered the recent $15 per hour minimum wage hike a great achievement for laborers, corporations responded by declaring they would simply automate more jobs to avoid increased labor costs. Thus, the labor movement’s vision remains important, but its tactics and strategies need to change to take into account globalization and technological advances, particularly automation of various jobs. For instance, labor unions might advocate more strongly for basic income, a potential response to the increased automation, or they might also advocate for mandatory “down time” for workers, as France has just implemented with its “no e-mail after business hours” legislation. Overall, the labor union remains important, but it must update its strategies and focus to remain heard.

  • Budd, J. (2004). Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice.
    Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Budd, J. (2012). Labor Relations: Striking a Balance. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Rosenfeld, J. (2014). What Unions No Longer Do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Yates, M. D. (2009). Why Unions Matter. New York: Monthly Review Press.