December 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 9

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Transforming Employment Institutions to Sustain the
American Dream

The Labor and Employment Relations Association and the ASA foster linkages

by Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and President-Elect, LERA, and Arne L. Kalleberg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and ASA Past-president

Recent trends such as the growth of economic inequality and insecurity, increases in precarious and low-wage work, and the decline of unions have threatened the very foundations of the American Dream. Therefore, it is urgent that scholars studying work, employment relations, and markets now join together to address the challenges posed by these trends and to inform policymakers and other key publics about the important institutional choices that we face as a society.

asa-leraTo promote a more integrated response to these challenges facing our nation, the ASA and Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) hope to establish closer cooperation and sharing of ideas on these topics. Toward this goal, a panel session at the 2008 ASA Annual Meeting highlighted innovations in professional programs in labor and employment relations that are emerging as changes occur in the nature of work, markets, and technology. Representatives from schools of Labor, Employment Relations and Human Resource Management programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, MIT, and Rutgers University participated in this panel, which was initiated by ASA President Arne Kalleberg to advance the 2008 ASA Annual Meeting theme, Worlds of Work. It was co-sponsored by ASA and LERA.

ASA Panel Session

Of the programs participating in the session, MIT is the oldest, having been established in the 1930s concurrent with several other programs; Illinois and Rutgers were part of a larger set of programs established after World War II. At both of these junctures—like now—our nation was making crucial choices around the institutions associated with labor and employment relations.

The MIT program, which changed its name from the "Industrial Relations Section" to the "Institute for Work and Employment Research," has led the field by focusing the collective efforts of faculty and doctoral students on large-scale thematic studies. Over the past two decades, MIT projects have centered on the transformation of American industrial relations, the airline industry, Kaiser-Permanente labor-management partnership, the state of collective bargaining in the United States, work/life studies, international labor standards, and the future of employment relations. By connecting faculty and doctoral students with practitioner partners, MIT has generated dozens of doctoral dissertations and scholarly articles as well as capstone books with clear impacts on policy and practice.

The School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers features both a department of Human Resource Management and a department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations. Strategically, Rutgers is responding to a broad range of societal challenges with research and educational programming. On the issue of globalization, there is research on global supply chains as well as connections with international labor educators. Regarding the decline of the labor movement, Rutgers features what is perhaps the largest concentration of scholars exploring innovative institutional models for worker representation. There are similar combinations of theory and practice on issues such as immigration, work/life integration, workforce development, and the health care industry. This includes a close working relationship with state-level workforce development policy initiatives.

Illinois, which has changed its name from the "Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations" to the "School of Labor and Employment Relations," (LER) has a master’s and doctoral program in human resources and industrial relations (HR/IR) and new undergraduate course work in Global Labor Studies. Illustrating its professional orientation, master’s students are heavily recruited for HRM positions in Fortune 100 firms, with approximately 95% of the domestic students having accepted job offers before they graduate. The Global Labor Studies courses offered by the Labor Education Program are provided using distance learning technology in order to reach a broad range of students. The Center for Human Resource Management recently launched an initiative in partnership with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, offering a 66-credit certificate in HR fundamentals for small- and medium-sized businesses. Finally, the term "socio-technical systems" has been revived at Illinois through courses that link LER master’s students with graduate students in professional engineering and science programs in order to better address the accelerating rates of change in technology and the implications for social systems.

The ASA panel featured a lively dialogue with the audience that examined common and contrasting interests among HR/IR programs and sociology departments. For example, there are relatively few positions in industry for sociologists. This contrasts with the clear professional career paths in the human resource management field. Programs featured in this panel are survivors of a period when some long-standing industrial relations programs have been eliminated or substantially cut back (such as at Indiana University, University of Iowa, and University of Wisconsin), while others are adapting to the needs of the emerging global knowledge economy. In the United Kingdom, it was noted, many of the Industrial Relations programs are merging with business schools.

While panelists from Cornell and Minnesota were unable to join the ASA session, developments in these programs include an expanded focus on international and comparative scholarship at Cornell and a new initiative on green workplaces at Minnesota. Cornell, Illinois, MIT, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Rutgers have joined together to deliver doctoral courses simultaneously to students in all the programs. The pilot course on Industrial Relations Theory drew more than 25 doctoral students and met electronically every Friday last spring. This fall, the focus is on professional development workshops, and, in the spring, a new course will be offered in Industry Studies Methods.

Building Connections

Emerging from the session was a clear sense that closer connections between ASA and LERA are desirable. A possible obstacle is that most sociology departments are oriented around disciplinary teaching and doctoral education. Most IR/HR schools, institutes, and departments do feature doctoral programs, but they have an interdisciplinary focus with professional master’s programs and other practitioner-oriented programs. While not inherently in conflict, there are cultural differences in these respective orientations that need to be taken into account.

Despite these differences, we are confident that more interchanges between ASA and LERA would be beneficial to both. This could include additional cross-representation on panels at conferences and other joint activities. The next step in our collaboration will be a session in January at the 2009 LERA annual meetings with participation by several ASA members. small_green

Editor’s Note: A parallel version of this article will also be published in the LERA newsletter.


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