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Book Review
June 2023

The past as prologue: an industrial relations scholar reflects on his life’s work

A Field in Flux: Sixty Years of Industrial Relations. By Robert B. McKersie. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019, 234 pp., $43.95 hardcover.

From the Great Resignation to the Great Reshuffle, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered seismic shifts in the U.S. workforce, including a resurgence of labor union activity. As employers and workers confronted unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances, particularly in the transportation, manufacturing, and healthcare industries, unions led the fight for new health and safety measures, wage increases, and expanded sick leave. These efforts seemingly resonated with the public. According to an August 2022 Gallup poll, 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions—the highest approval rating since 1965. In addition, workers at corporate giants Starbucks, Amazon, and Apple led successful labor-organizing campaigns.

While written just prior to the pandemic, A Field in Flux: Sixty Years of Industrial Relations provides an insightful lens through which to view the labor movement’s continuing evolution. In the book, author Robert B. McKersie, a renowned industrial relations scholar and a leading expert in the field of work and employment relations, takes the reader on a warts-and-all, 60-year journey through what he fondly calls his “life’s work.” McKersie’s reflections are intimate, incisive, and rooted in historical context, as his career has intersected with momentous changes in industrial relations. From this perspective, he speculates on the future of the field, on the premise that the past is, indeed, prologue.

McKersie begins the book by sharing the early influences that shaped his perspective and led him into the field, including having family members in unions and an enduring love of transportation, particularly trains. He recounts how his undergraduate training as an electrical engineer at the University of Pennsylvania, which emphasized problem solving, prompted his attendance at Harvard Business School from 1954 to 1959, where a similar pedagogical approach—the case method—was used. At Harvard, labor relations courses cemented McKersie’s interest in the field. This problem-solving focus is a recurrent theme in the book, with the author discussing his various roles as an academic, an arbitrator, and an activist. In his view, the field of industrial relations has been, and will continue to be, “uniquely positioned in the social sciences as a problem-oriented and problem-solving field of study.”

As would often be the case in McKersie’s life, his timing was fortuitous. He entered the field just as unions peaked in size and power, an ascent resulting from the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act). After receiving his Harvard doctorate, McKersie joined the faculty of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, remaining there from 1959 to 1971. This period was, in his words, “a heady time” at the school, and in Chicago. The university’s faculty included George P. Schultz, who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1969 to 1970, and later, between 1982 and 1989, as U.S. Secretary of State. Schulz, as dean of the School of Business, was a union proponent and a mentor and role model for McKersie.

McKersie does not conceal his own support for unions, declaring that, “when workers are represented by a union, good things happen.” Yet, revealingly, he also ponders whether his view of unions has been “too romantic” given his personal background and his admiration for the leadership of AFL-CIO founders George Meany and Walter Reuther. Ultimately, McKersie admits to a predisposition “to being swept off [his] feet by social action,” as evidenced by his civil rights involvement. He recalls that the burgeoning Chicago civil rights movement pulled him into an activist role “in a major way.” He explains that the movement reflected the “energy and impact of the labor movement of earlier decades. In both cases, injustices needed to be addressed…and mobilizing the aggrieved in large numbers was the only way to effect change.”

This interplay between discipline-based theory and practical engagement, honed during McKersie’s Chicago tenure, would become a hallmark of his career. McKersie demonstrated a remarkable facility for moving beyond academia’s ivory tower into the arenas of business and organized labor—often gaining a seat at the table, as consequential decisions were made. Such deftness of movement became a tool in McKersie’s professional arsenal, fostering understanding between competing interests and, simultaneously, providing a fertile training ground for his industrial relations students.

While in Chicago, McKersie began contemplating the impact of automation in the manufacturing sector, an interest stimulated by the region’s large meat-packing industry. As the book highlights, McKersie’s concerns about new technologies leading to job elimination and worker displacement increased over time, focusing on technological innovations such as robotics, digital manufacturing, and artificial intelligence. The author opines that determining how “workers fit into the equation of technological change will occupy scholars…for the foreseeable future.”  His concerns have been validated by the rapid development of new technologies with the potential to disrupt the workforce.

After leaving Chicago, McKersie served as Cornell University’s dean of the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, a position he held from 1971 to 1979. While at Cornell, he focused on the “hot” new area of public sector collective bargaining, which was fueled by the surge of union organizing activity in the public sector in the 1960s and 1970s, even as private sector unionization had begun to decline. McKersie notes that collective bargaining in the public sector has become quite contentious, a development he attributes to increasing financial constraints of state and local governments to fund worker benefits, coupled with public unions’ resistance to, and fear of, change. He urges that sensible solutions be found to address these issues. His point is well taken, as the pandemic and its aftermath have only heightened tensions in collective bargaining.

Fittingly, in 1980, McKersie arrived at the engineer’s mecca, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), accepting an industrial relations faculty appointment at the Sloan School of Management. He has remained at the school, although now as an emeritus professor. Not surprisingly, McKersie explains that he was drawn to MIT’s emphasis on problem solving and innovation, at a time when many problems needed to be solved as a result of “one of the major turning points in labor relations in the last half century.” The turning point was, of course, the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike, which President Ronald Reagan declared illegal, firing all strikers who refused to return to work within 48 hours. McKersie states that President Reagan’s actions “set the tone for labor relations in the years and decades to follow, encouraging employers to adopt a hard line vis-à-vis unions.” Consequently, the author began exhaustive research in order to understand the resulting transformations in industrial relations.

McKersie’s retrospective concludes with reflections on the current state of industrial relations against the backdrop of greater workforce diversity, income inequality, globalization, and the shift from a production-centered economy to a knowledge-based economy. Charting the path forward, the author asserts that labor and management must work together, creatively, to solve the pressing problems of business and worker welfare. He also emphasizes that workers continue to want to voice and discuss their concerns in the workplace, with unions being a logical, though often unavailable, means by which to do so. In this vein, he maintains that there is one question that is as relevant now as it was prior to the New Deal: “Which future systems of worker voice and representation fit the needs of the present and future workforce and economy?” According to McKersie, a fundamental tenet of industrial relations is that a democratic society must “hear and heed the voice of the workforce in economic and political affairs.”

For those interested in the practical and historical dimensions of labor relations, A Field in Flux is a great read filled with insightful reminiscences, lessons learned, and views. The book is relatively short, which is no small feat given the scope and breadth of McKersie’s career. Over the course of six chapters, the author covers many topics, some of which the reader may wish had been discussed in greater depth. In my opinion, however, the book’s focus on the big picture is part of its appeal. McKersie, the engineer turned professor, has, figuratively speaking, left problems on the board for the reader to solve and questions to ponder, research, and discuss. Moreover, by framing his narrative in a historical context, he is able to look ahead and to remind the reader that, as writer William Faulkner once remarked, “History is not was, it is.”

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About the Reviewer

Veronica P. Jones

Veronica P. Jones, Esq., is the Deputy Labor Commissioner in the Baltimore City Office of the Labor Commissioner.

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