Implications for Labor-Management Education

By Ledman, Robert E.; Licata, Betty Jo | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Implications for Labor-Management Education


Ledman, Robert E., Licata, Betty Jo, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

Puette (1992) found that high school students were greatly misinformed about labor unions. We suspected the same was true of college business students. If so, that fact could have significant implications for management educators. We surveyed 282 college students to examine their knowledge of labor unions, their perceptions regarding the advantages and disadvantages of belonging to a union and the role the media plays in shaping student views. Results of the survey indicate college students are also poorly informed about labor unions and depend on the media to provide them information on unions. We discuss the implications of these findings for what we teach about labor unions and identify nine specific topics that should be included.

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One of the primary effects of higher education is to produce well-informed citizens. Students in business schools arrive with a host of knowledge and an abundance of conceptions, many of which are erroneous. The logical extension of the first statement above is that one of the primary purposes of a business school education is to correct misconceptions by informing students. However, to accomplish that result the faculty must have some knowledge of how students are misinformed, or what misconceptions they have. The purpose of this paper is to examine how well informed business students are about organized labor and present suggestions for action.

To completely understand why students come to business schools with inaccurate information about business topics, it is useful to explore how they are informed prior to arriving at college. Schmidt (1993) suggests that the public assesses groups based upon second hand information and further points out that the primary source of that second hand information is the mass media. She goes on to argue that the type and amount &media coverage forms the basis for public opinion about unions and the greatest impact is on those with weak opinions. Key (1961) is more specific when he notes that media particularly influence public opinion on issues with which people have no personal experience, or particular feelings. These arguments appear to insinuate that the public relies on the media as a significant source of information or "knowledge" about those things with which they have little or no personal experience, or first hand knowledge. Puette (1992) argues that to the average person in the United States unions are a "distant phenomenon" (p. 155). Therefore, one can reach the logical conclusion that much of what students know about organized labor comes from mass media sources. The effects of this lack of first-hand knowledge can be significant. This sentiment is echoed by Schmidt (1993). She makes the point that a large majority of the public's information about interest groups comes from media coverage. Thus, the media can be an important influence on attitudes by controlling what people know. This view is shared by Bok and Dunlop (1970), Kochan (1979) and Craft and Abboushi (1983), who note that the public's opinion of unions is related to what people know about unions' activities. Or as Puette (1992) puts it, stereotypes result from ignorance and labor stereotypes are no different. Furthermore, some argue that all unions, in the public's mind, are the same (Puette, 1992).

The previous discussion raises an interesting question. To what extent does media coverage of organized labor present accurate information? If the information presented by the media is accurate then the public should be well informed and knowledgeable. This argument would suggest that business students should come into business schools with accurate perceptions, and some knowledge of organized labor issues. Studies of media coverage of labor unions are limited (Schmidt, 1993). We know from a Gallup Poll (1981) that public opinions of unions are less favorable than they once were. Bok and Dunlop (1970), and Zack (1977) conclude that there is fragmented and anecdotal evidence for the view that there is a bias against unions in the media. They found that the media covered only the most dramatic events so the public receives information that portrays unions as corrupt, violent, elitist, and socially unresponsive. Even today the media is often accused of presenting the sensational side of the news. Schmidt (1993) found that strike related articles, arguably the most sensational of union "events," have become a larger proportion of all media coverage of unions even though the number of strikes has declined since the 1970s. She conducted a content analysis of coverage of unions in the New York Times between 1946 and 1985. She hypothesizes that the proportion of coverage given to strikes influences public opinion. That hypothesis is supported by her study. From that evidence she concludes that (a) media coverage is biased in favor of strike reporting and (b) that kind of coverage negatively affects public opinion. Schmidt (1993) also suggests that nonmembers are more susceptible to media influence. Because of their lack of direct knowledge, they rely on mass media for information.

Puette (1992) conducted what can be described as the most comprehensive review of media coverage of organized labor to date. His exhaustive work documents in detail how the media, ranging from newspapers to popular film to cartoons to television, have portrayed organized labor. He then compares the media presentation with reality to point out some glaring inaccuracies in the media's presentation. He argues that in recent history the impact of the media on public opinion has grown to the extent that it surpasses virtually all other sources of influence. He suggests that the educational role of family, teachers, clergy, and others is increasingly replaced by the media.

A more recent work by Jarley and Kuruvilla (1994) also explores public opinion of unions. They conclude that the quality and quantity of reporting about labor have declined in recent times. They also note that fewer people have direct experience with organized labor. Thus, they suggest, opinions may be "top-of-the-head" responses rather than thoughtful informed decisions (p. 107).

There seems to be reason to believe that the public in general is ill informed about organized labor unless they have direct knowledge about unions. Those with first hand or direct knowledge of unions and their activities might arguably be better informed. That suggestion would only be applicable to students if they gain information from parents who are directly involved. Barling, Kelloway, and Bremermann (1991) suggested that students' attitudes about unions can be predicted by perceptions of parental union attitudes and union participation. Kelloway and Watts (1994) found that students' perceptions of parental attitudes about and participation in unions were accurate. They conclude that the process of individual attachment to unions may begin before entering the workforce.

Increasingly the public in general seems to be reliant on mass media to inform and educate them. That source is clearly documented to be biased in what it covers and how organized labor is portrayed. Those conclusions lead to a significant question about what is being done to correct misconceptions and erroneous information that business students possess when they begin their business education. However, the extent to which they are misinformed needs to be determined. To begin to ascertain the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of business students' knowledge of organized labor we surveyed undergraduate students.

The primary instrument to assess students' knowledge was a questionnaire reported on by Puette (1992). He reports the findings of a survey of 462 high school students. The students responses reflected ten themes: (a) unions always go on strike, (b) unions are too powerful, (c) they are corrupt, (d) they are greedy and selfish, (e) they run the country, (f) union leaders are overpaid, (g) union dues are too high, (h) unions are un-American and un-democratic, (i) unions protect bad workers, and (j) unions are no longer needed. The questions used by Puette are the first twelve questions in Appendix 1. He also found students did not know basic information and that their perceptions of that information was inaccurate. Since a very small percentage of his sample had any formal instruction in organized labor matters, he concludes their responses reflect common images communicated through media. We added questions to Puette's survey to assess the possible impact of exposure to organized labor through personal or family experience. Those additional questions had the aim of trying to determine if there is a difference in students' knowledge between those with some direct or family link to unions and those without a link.

The goal was to explore whether or not college students are similarly misinformed and lack knowledge about organized labor. The purpose for this exploration is fairly straightforward. The typical Principles of Management textbook, often the only management book business students in non-management disciplines will read, does not provide very elaborate coverage of organized labor. While it may be argued that organized labor is waning in its influence, that argument does not hold true in all regions of the country or in all industries. Regularly there are reports in the business press of new initiatives, on the part of organized labor, to sign up previously ignored labor segments such as temporary workers, workers in e-commerce service centers, and even graduate teaching assistants in universities. Combining these issues, one can conclude that if college business students are not knowledgeable about organized labor, that the typical Principles of Management text does not provide thorough coverage of the subject, and that our students may face new efforts from organized labor to represent the employees in their organizations, or may become part of organized labor, then we, as management educators, need to examine what can be done in our courses to produce better informed, more knowledgeable graduates.

Method

Participants The participants in this study are 282 students in two undergraduate business programs. The students were beginning level business students who, at the time of questionnaire administration, had not completed any coursework dealing specifically with organized labor issues (i.e., students in introductory business or principles of management courses). The students represent diverse backgrounds in terms of their first-hand knowledge of organized labor issues, geography, race, and gender. One of the schools is located in a southern right-to-work state and the other is located in a Midwestern "rust belt" state with a long history of significant unionization of its workforce.

Questionnaire The questionnaire contained the questions Puette (1992) used with answer choices updated to reflect current information (Appendix 1). Additional student demographic and personal profile questions were included. See issue's website < http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/spr2004.htm >

Data Analysis Since our interest was in determining if college students could answer the factual questions correctly, no statistical analysis was performed. It is not our intent to present an empirical analysis of the responses but to use the survey results as a conceptual foundation. We did examine the response distribution of the total sample and the response distribution of the sample by race, gender, academic major, age, geographic location of home, union membership, workplace, work experience, primary news source, sources of information about unions, and college attended. The results obtained were adequate to determine that our business students were not able to accurately answer the questions. That assessment provides the foundation for the discussion below about the implications for management educators.

Results

Twenty eight percent of the sample (n=80) was from a southeastern college with a national student body and 72% (n=202) from a university in a Midwestern "rust belt" state. The majority of participants (92%) were business majors between the ages of 17 and 23 (93%). Sixty-three percent of the participants were male and 37% female. Caucasians made up 63% of the sample, with African Americans composing 29%, Hispanics 3%, Asians 1%, and 4% not reporting race. When asked their permanent home for the last five years, 57% reported the northeast, 20% the Midwest, 14% the south, 6% the mid-Atlantic, 2% the west coast, and 1% the southwest. Fifty-five percent of respondents reported having 0-1 years of full-time work experience, 32% reported having 2-4 years, 7% had 5-8 years and 5% eight or more years. See issue's website < http://rapidintelleet.com/AEQweb/spr2004.htm >

Table one presents a summary of the respondents answers to the 12 questions about labor unions with the correct answers given in bold. Only three questions were correctly answered by a majority of college respondents. These three questions related to a union official's responsibility to help all members (94% correct), that all big unions did not support the democratic candidate for president in the last election (72% correct), and that after paying union dues members make more than non-union workers (63% correct). The remaining nine questions were answered incorrectly by the majority of the respondents. These patterns are similar to those observed by Puette (1992) in his survey of high school students.

We also explored whether membership of the respondent, or an immediate family member, in a union made any discernible difference in the response patterns. There were no indications that those with familial union experience were more knowledgeable than the other respondents. Only two questions were answered correctly by a larger percentage of respondents with union involvement. Thirty percent of those with personal or family membership in a union knew that all unions do not have the right to strike while only 21% of respondents with no direct union membership in the immediate family correctly answered that question. Similarly, a larger percentage (48%) of the sample with union membership in the family correctly answered the question "What percentage of strikes are called without an authorization vote of the membership?", while only 34% of those with no union membership in the family provided the correct answer.

To help understand the source of the students' misinformation the students were asked to identify their primary news source. Television was the primary source for 61% of respondents followed by newspaper (21%), radio (15%), and news magazines (3%). The primary source of information about unions was media (62%), followed by family or friends who belong to unions (28%), personal experience (7%), and courses (3%). When one considers that 69% of respondents indicated they or a family member belonged to a union the above responses become quite striking.

The results above suggest that college students rely more heavily on media for information about organized labor than their own family members who belong to unions. Given the case previously made for an anti-union bias in the media (Bok & Dunlop, 1970; Zack, 1977; Puette, 1992; and Schmidt, 1993), it is not surprising that students are misinformed. The challenge for management educators is to find ways to correct students' knowledge so we can accurately say we are producing educated graduates.

Discussion and Implications for Management Educators

The results of this study show that a majority of college students are ill informed about the size, purpose and activities of labor unions. These results raise serious concerns about the need for improved labor education in business programs. The remainder of this discussion will focus on what management educators can do to address the inadequate knowledge of our students. As noted earlier, the typical Principles of Management text does not carry extensive coverage of many of these issues. Although it may be argued that organized labor topics rightfully belong in advanced management courses, many business students, in fact most, probably will never take one of those advanced courses. However, most management educators anticipate that many students will advance to management positions. For many, those management positions will carry responsibilities for dealing with organized labor issues. Those responsibilities may include dealing with efforts by a union to organize the workforce, operating within the parameters of a collective bargaining agreement, trying to head-off labor unrest that could result in job actions, and similar realities of work, or being part of a union organization. Have management educators done as much as should be done to prepare graduates to deal effectively with these issues?

One role for educators suggested by the results of this study is that steps must be taken to dispel misinformation and effectively educate students about labor unions. The first step in this process will likely be facilitating "unlearning" before attempting to help students re-learn accurate information. A primary reason for undertaking this study was to try to gain insight about what erroneous "knowledge" our students have so we could begin the process of correcting it. One issue we should be aware of is the factors shaping our students' perceptions. We should be aware of the influence of media coverage and the extent to which that media coverage may be biased. If educators know what distortions or inaccuracies are reported they can take corrective steps in their classrooms to present a balanced view. To fully assess the accuracy of media coverage educators should be well informed about labor history and economics, especially in the region of the country in which they teach.

Skousen and Bertelson (1994) suggest faculty members need to be aware of trends in education and make changes resulting from continuous curriculum review. This is particularly important in business programs where most students see themselves moving into professional and managerial roles. In light of the research findings about media coverage of unions, educators must take a closer look at whether or not existing business courses are doing an adequate job of covering organized labor issues. In particular, does the typical management course make any effort to present clear and irrefutable evidence that what students think to be true is not. For instance, when students believe that unions are bad and only serve to force employers to pay higher wages, how many management educators can refute that view with evidence that unions focus on more than just wages? Safe working conditions, fair and equitable treatment of all workers, improved health benefits, and job security are important issues to many students, but they are not aware of the role unions play, or have played, in advancing these issues.

Educators, after facilitating the "unlearning" of students will then be faced with the challenge of leading students to a new, and more accurate, understanding of organized labor. For many faculty members, this will require substantial preparation. For others it will only require a slight reconfiguring of their course content or scheduling to allow more time for coverage of labor topics. The question facing management educators is how can instructors, who may not be fully informed themselves, do an effective job of covering labor topics? Several ideas are given below.

1. One approach that can be very successful is to tap into the local organized labor structure. Contacting the nearest regional office of a prevalent labor union can provide a good source of information about their perspective on many issues. They are typically quite willing to provide information and guest speakers who will eagerly present the labor perspective. This approach can be quite effective when a significant labor issue is receiving substantial media coverage.

2. Another approach is to assign readings from pro-labor sources, especially ones that present vivid descriptions of pre-union working conditions. With the recent publicity about American firms using sweatshop labor in foreign countries to produce shoes and clothing, having students read about working conditions in domestic sweatshops and mines in the early part of this century, or the poultry processing plants of the 1990s can be a very effective opening to a discussion of the role unions have played in areas such as working conditions, workplace safety, and child labor laws.

3. There are also numerous films, television shows, and cartoons that deal with labor topics. Puette (1992) provides an exhaustive bibliography of such sources and a discussion of how they are inaccurate. Reviewing some of these media sources and discussing how they accurately and inaccurately reflect the truth can be an effective means to illustrate to students that their media sources for information may not always present a balanced perspective. The use of popular movies or TV shows can be a powerful learning tool, particularly when combined with a plant tour, or a speaker who has first-hand knowledge of the issues.

4. Labor economics is a topic many management educators are not comfortable trying to explain, or do not adequately understand to effectively present it to students. Rather than skipping over this important topic in understanding organized labor, tapping into the economics faculty can be an excellent resource. The economics faculty may be able to better explain and illustrate topics like worker productivity as a trade-off for higher wages. One of the authors used this topic recently to effectively demonstrate why the higher wages paid to organized labor are not wasted since the employer receives greater productivity for the higher wages.

5. Discussions on the importance and value of cooperative labor-management relations conducted by teams of labor and management representatives. Listening to both parties talk about the importance of working together to build the value of the organization will be an enlightening experience for most students.

6. Joint presentations by labor and management representatives that focus on the past, present and future of the union in a particular organization.

7. An experiential exercise that involves negotiating a contract. By placing themselves in this type of a situation many students will develop a new understanding of the needs and interests of both groups.

8. Student interviews of a union member or union leader and/or a human resource manager or operations manager.

9. Case discussions of various union-management situations. Divide students into labor and management teams and have them discuss the case from a specific perspective.

10. Role-playing activities related to grievance handling, arbitration or contract negotiation give students a new level of involvement in developing an appreciation of the issues.

11. Tours of a local unionized company combined with a presentation by the management team and the union leadership will expose students to an area's work site as well as a variety of issues typically included in a Principles of Management course.

12. To enrich case discussions, contract negotiations, or experiential exercises, ask students before the exercise if they consider themselves to be more pro-union or pro-management Once students have identified their position, assign them to the opposite position, thus challenging them to examine their positions from a different perspective.

13. Instead of compartmentalizing the discussion of labor issues, incorporate the topic throughout the Principles of Management course. For example, what are the union issues related to the implementation of continuous improvement processes, expanding global operations, organizational leadership, corporate strategy, starting your own business, or leadership and motivation?

The attitude that unions are bad and cost employers unnecessarily will be a deterrent to college graduates being effective managers. College students must acquire knowledge of labor unions and labor history if they are to be effective in the work place. This knowledge will enable them to understand the importance of a positive work environment, the need to work cooperatively with labor unions, and the role that labor unions play in an organization. To improve students' knowledge it is essential to identify what information is needed for students to be considered well-informed or knowledgeable. The topics identified below seem to us to be a good minimum standard. The list below is based on personal experience as managers in union shops and as faculty members in heavily unionized areas. Business students should be able to accurately address several points:

1. How unions organize workers.

2. Why workers typically seek union representation.

3. The frequency of strikes and the major reasons for those strikes.

4. What collective bargaining agreements are.

5. What portion of our workforce is unionized and how that compares to other countries (especially in our global business environment).

6. What right-to work laws are and how they affect workers in union settings.

7. Management's responsibilities in dealing with unionized workers.

8. Recent trends towards unionizing traditionally non-unionized segments such as professionals.

9. The possible impact of unions and collective bargaining agreements on organizational strategies, compensations strategies, and worker motivation strategies.

References

Barling, J., Kelloway, E. K., & Bremermann, E. H. (1991). Preemployment predictors of union attitudes: The role of family socialization and work beliefs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 76 725-731.

Bok, D. C., & Dunlop, J. T. (1970). Labor and The American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Craft, J. A. & Abboushi, S. (1983). The union image: Concepts, program and analysis. Journal of Labor Research, 4 299-314.

Gallup Report. (1981). Approval of labor unions remains at low. 191 (August 1981). 6-13.

Jarley, P. & Kuruvilla, S. (1994). American trade unions and public approval: Can unions please all of the people all of the time? Journal of Labor Research, XV (2) 97-116.

Kelloway, E. K. & Watts, L. (1994). Preemployment predictors of union attitudes: Replication and extension. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79 631-634.

Key, V. O. Jr. (1961). Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf.

Kochan, t. A. (1979). How American workers view labor unions. Monthly Labor relations Review, 102 (April, 1979) 23-31.

Puette, W. J. (1992) Through Jaundiced Eyes. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

Schmidt, D. E. (1993). Public opinion and media coverage of labor unions. Journal of Labor Research, XIV (2) 151-164.

Skousen, K. F. & Bertelson, D. P. (1994). A look at change in management education. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 59 (1) 13-20.

Zack, A. (1977). The press bias on labor. American Federationist, 84 (Oct.) 1-7.

Robert E. Ledman, Morehouse College, GA

Ledman, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management. His research focuses on pedagogical issues of improving student learning and course content. Licata, Ph.D., is Dean and Professor of Management in the Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University. Her teaching and research interests are in the areas of human resource management, management skill development, and leadership.

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