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Guest lecture

International Trends in Labour Markets and Union Activity: Potential Implications for the Public Sector

Event series: 

Prof Charles Heckscher

Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations

Charles Heckscher is a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. His research focuses on organisational change and its consequences for employees and unions, and on the possibilities for more collaborative and democratic forms of work. As Director of the Center for Workplace Transformation, he is leading research into the development of collaboration in local unions and corporations.

In his lecture, Charles Heckscher gave an overview of:

  • Recent trends in labour markets in the United States;
  • Industrial history and the effects on labour markets and unions; and
  • The move to a 'knowledge era' and the effects on labour markets and unions.


Recent Trends in Labour Markets in the United States

  • There has been a sharp increase in the amount of contingent (part-time and contract) work over the period 1995-1998.
  • There has been a sharp increase in income inequality over the period 1980-1996.
  • The length of job tenure is declining
  • Union density (membership as a percentage of the labour force) is declining, together with the political influence of unions
  • Investment in 'knowledge' is increasing relative to investment in property, plant and equipment.
  • There have been a number of organisational changes including: more cross-functional teams, larger spans of control, more 'pay for performance' and more alliances and partnerships

Industrial History

Charles Heckscher identified three stages in industrial history:

  1. The craft era
  2. The mass-production era
  3. The knowledge era

We are currently in a transitional period between the mass-production era and the knowledge era. The period of transition is characterised by a loss of confidence in the regulatory environment, a decline of old stakeholder groups (such as traditional industrial unions), disorganised conflict between stakeholders, and increased inequality.

The Knowledge Era

Competitive advantage in the knowledge era comes from adding knowledge through innovation or customisation rather than from efficiency through building economies of scale. Labour market partnerships in this new era need to move from a focus on employment security and productivity to a focus on enhancing involvement and mobility. However, it is difficult to give managers the incentives to encourage true involvement and mobility. The challenge for managers is to take responsibility for mobility and to encourage real participation and commitment.

True involvement occurs when employees have a genuine influence in planning. This requires the legitimacy of employee values and a mutual education in both business and union issues.

True mobility requires a mutual honesty about plans for the future, flexible negotiations, the portability of on-the-job benefits and substantial support for movement between jobs.

Charles Heckscher concludes that partnerships in this new knowledge era need to focus resources on solving problems and on mobilizing intelligence (for example, through the provision of training). It will be a challenge for traditional industrial unions to adapt to this new environment, as they will require new skills and the ability to form partnerships with outside groups.

Last updated: 
Monday, 15 October 2007