Industrial relations: another academic field captured by ideology

Over the past few decades, much of American higher education has become ideologically left wing. You might have thought, however, that business schools could resist the trend. You’d be mistaken.

Business schools have also veered in a leftist direction. An example is the field of industrial relations.

Industrial relations (IR) is the study of the workplace. It began early in the twentieth century. It was originally an interdisciplinary field that included a wide range of political and economic opinions: pro-union labor scholars, anti-union management scholars, and economists with a variety of views.

In the 1960s, however, the field began to exclude anyone who was not pro-union or who rejected the New Deal model of labor relations that advocates unionization and collective bargaining.

Bruce Kaufman, a professor at Georgia State University, describes in his book The Origins and Evolution of the Field of Industrial Relations how IR devolved into politically correct rigidity. Liberal-to-left political belief and sympathy for the New Deal model became essential qualifications for the faculty. He writes, “The strong intellectual and philosophical commitment of many scholars to the New Deal industrial relations system, and their corresponding fear [of a] critical examination of this system,” have led to an “ideological litmus test” that excludes “prominent scholars with a nonunion perspective.”

The eviction of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates who believe in nonunion human resource systems is linked to the refusal of the two leading journals, Industrial and Labor Relations Review and Industrial Relations, to publish material that questions government regulation or unionization.

It also is linked to the refusal of the leading learned society, the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), to allow presentations of research that is based on free market theories like public choice. In short, industrial relations has become an intellectual monoculture.

The ideological litmus tests in LERA and in the two leading journals have direct practical effects because most leading business schools and other academic departments that sponsor industrial relations programs will refuse to hire anyone who does not publish in those venues. Thus, most top-tier universities that sponsor industrial relations programs impose a de facto ideological litmus test on junior faculty by using publish-or-perish criteria linked to LERA and to the two journals.

If an untenured professor must publish in a journal that only publishes pro-union findings, then the university has in effect adopted a pro-union ideology in making its tenure decision concerning the professor. That has continued even though a high-quality, alternative journal, The Journal of Labor Research, began publication in 1980.

The field’s political correctness has backfired for a simple practical reason: Most employers are no longer interested in the New Deal labor relations model. As a result, some business schools have closed their industrial relations departments or turned them into human resource management programs. For example, the Columbia Business School was building an industrial relations department in the 1980s, but the school decided to disband the department, and its leading scholar, David Lewin, moved to UCLA.

Moreover, since the 1980s, faculty who focus on nonunion human resource systems have migrated to the Academy of Management, a learned society that competes with LERA, while IR programs continue to exclude those who are not pro-union.

Nevertheless, there are still industrial relations schools, institutes, and departments at Berkeley, Cornell, Illinois, Minnesota, MIT, and UCLA, and many other universities. In those programs, students will rarely if ever encounter professors who aren’t committed to unionization and government regulation; nor will they encounter any discussion of the harm of union coercion and violence or possible benefits from right-to-work laws. This is a most regrettable state of affairs.

The industrial relations field’s ideological litmus tests pose costs to society. IR is the logical venue for academic discussion of public policy and business strategy concerning the organization of employment systems. These might include the adoption of enterprise unions, the innovation of new forms of unionism not linked to the employment relationship, and the development of new forms of employment relationships.

How we might create different work systems that enhance productivity is critical to industrial competitiveness, so the absence of an impartial venue for academic discourse about such systems may be harmful to American prosperity.

Besides the organization of work systems and human resource management, evenhanded discourse about other flash points like public sector unionism and minimum wage ordinances can also improve economic outcomes. Unfortunately, LERA has forestalled such academic discourse because it has become so ideologically one sided.

For instance, in his 2000 presidential address to LERA, Professor Thomas Kochan of MIT spoke in favor of “promoting working interests in community politics and worker advocacy activities” and also in favor of living wage ordinances. Furthermore, he argued that firms should have a fiduciary duty to stakeholders rather than just to their stockholders. Those are, of course, thoroughly leftist ideas.

At the 2011 LERA meeting, I witnessed repeated verbal assaults on Republicans in general and Ronald Reagan and Minnesota’s Governor Tim Pawlenty in particular, as well as speeches by Obama administration officials.  And in a session that concerned LERA’s website, the Employment Policy Research Network (EPRN), Kochan stated that there is both a power struggle and an ideological struggle in which EPRN aims to participate. The possibility that alternative, market-based solutions might play a bigger role than they currently do or that ideology and the quest for power should not be the aim of an academic society is never suggested at LERA meetings or in the pages of the leading industrial relations journals.

The uniformity of thinking in IR is similar to that in some other academic disciplines. A case in point is social psychology. The Pope Center recently published this article by Professor Richard Redding, in which he discussed a remarkable paper by six intellectually diverse scholars in that field. Their conclusion is that political bias has skewed research in social psychology. Important questions may be overlooked and research findings may be biased or even dishonest because the field is so one-sided.

In the same spirit, I have several times asked LERA’s leadership to consider having a frank discussion about the one-sided, often partisan tone at its meetings.

This year the leadership relented, and I have organized an open panel discussion for the next meeting, to be held this May, concerning the role of ideology in industrial relations. Among the participants in the panel are two former LERA presidents and several other leaders in the field.  Whether the panel will begin to open up a broader range of viewpoints or whether it will be a red herring in a declining, hopelessly ideological field remains to be seen.