The Transformation of Labor-Management Conflicts

Christopher Honeyman

July 2003

No conflict continues forever. It may seem surprising to anyone who is caught up in an intractable conflict, but "intractable" conflicts become "tractable" all the time. It may be helpful to consider an example of a well-known and even epochal intractable conflict that, over time, became manageable.

Less than a hundred years ago, conflict between labor and management was widely seen as intractable, and indeed as demanding a wholesale reformulation of society. Long after Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto, regular clashes between employers and unions in Britain and the United States, as well as in almost all other industrialized countries, were widely thought of in terms of an on-going contest on a national or international level. It would be fair to describe that contest as an intractable conflict between entrenched forces of ownership and capital on the one side, and the emerging forces of organized labor on the other.

In Russia that conflict played out on the scale that a massive, society-wide intractable conflict seems to imply — and in China, North Korea, and Cuba the echoes continue to reverberate. Furthermore, at least through the 1930s there was widespread fear in the West that what was seen as an enduring, all-but-irresolvable conflict between labor and management would erupt into revolution, or alternatively, into an attempt at revolution followed by ruthless oppression according to a Fascist model.

Obviously, this outcome did not occur. Instead, the United States and European countries began to evolve systems, structures, and legal rights governing this area of human relationships, which did not resolve all of the tensions between labor and management, but at least provided some protections for workers, and made the tensions manageable.

A century of labor history is too complex and too convoluted even within any one of these countries to be captured here in anything but generalities. But there may be lessons for other kinds of intractable conflicts in the sequence with which statutes and systems evolved, and ultimately converted the intractable conflict of workers versus employers into a routine, manageable series of regional or local disputes.

In the U.S., unemployment compensation, worker's compensation for employees injured on the job, and the beginnings of pension rules began to appear in individual states by the early 1900's. These forms of statutory protection were attained first, it seems, because protections for aged, injured or discarded workers were inherently less controversial than the right of workers to organize in groups. Yet these initial forms of protection served as a basis for further social change, and the political experience that unions gained in fighting for these less controversial rights was probably an essential prerequisite to their later ability to rise in influence within, rather than in opposition to, the political system.

The tumultuous 1930s saw the emergence of the all-important statutory right to organize for industrial workers. Yet it was only during World War II, during a period when the federal government asserted extraordinary power over labor relations (by creating a War Labor Board whose officers could not only mediate, but also arbitrate industrial disputes) that large employers truly became accustomed to collective bargaining, and learned to live with it.

In the U.S., a period of union success following World War II saw union membership rise to half or more of the employees in large private enterprises. This period culminated with the beginning of successful organizing of public-sector workers. Since the mid-1970's, however, union membership in the private sector, not only in the U.S. but also in most northern European countries, has dropped dramatically. Still, the underlying rights have not been abolished, though in the public sector, a vigorous conservative movement has led (ca. 2011-13) to sharp reductions in the scope of unionization in some surprising places, such as the longtime union strongholds of Michigan and Wisconsin.

While unions argue vehemently that employer intimidation is the cause of their decline in membership, employer tactics were arguably more brutal during the period of greatest union success. An alternative explanation for declining employee interest in unionization may be employers' recognition that there is only so far they can go in taking advantage of non-union employees before those employees will once again press to be represented by a union. Thus the unionized companies, albeit smaller in number, continue to indirectly influence the wages and working conditions at non-union firms.

The result of this effect is that a relatively stable set of arrangements has been arrived at in many industrialized countries. The statutory and practical details of any given element of these arrangements varies quite widely from one country to the next, but the general pattern is that employees have the right to organize unions, throughout much of the economy if not all of it; that a number of employee and retiree welfare provisions are enacted by statutes, and are applicable to non-union as well as to unionized firms; and that over time, an increasing number of rights to protection against adverse treatment (based initially on union activity, and later on race, gender, and other grounds unrelated to work performance) have become enacted into law. Along with these rights have come a dizzying variety of legal, administrative agency, mediation, and arbitration systems for resolving the disputes which inevitably arise over whether these rights have been violated in one instance or another.

The progression of workers' rights has been a patchwork affair, in which worker groups have suffered many reverses. And there continue to be plenty of disputes, some small, others on a large scale — such as a temporary shutdown of all U.S. West Coast ports, or a Europe-wide disruption of air traffic caused by a French air traffic controllers' strike. But even though in every industrialized country, labor and related disputes occur by the thousands, very few people today believe that a revolution or an attempt at revolution based on the treatment of workers and their families by management and owners is a realistic possibility, in the United States or any European country that has developed these systems.

In effect, the single intractable conflict that once seemed to exist between labor and management has evolved into a whole series of "ordinary conflicts pursued under ordinary rules." Most would argue that labor-management conflict has seen a great deal of progress, and the patterns by which this progress has occurred — particularly, its two-steps-forward, one-step-back history and its pronounced national and even local variations — may suggest likely expectations for how other intractable conflicts may be brought to "manageability."

Use the following to cite this article:
Honeyman, Christopher. "The Transformation of Labor-Management Conflicts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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