Nice HR Managers Can’t Fix Bad Jobs

Patrick Young
Mar 3, 2019 · 4 min read

As workplaces and the organization of work in our economy continues to evolve, many practitioners of human resources management (HRM) have argued that traditional models of union representation workplace organizing are no longer relevant to workers and that enlightened HR management can improve the world of work.

In an article published by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), HR managers argued that more responsive HR practices can address the needs of workers in the current economy. Jim Gray, a labor relations consultant argued, “Accelerated employee engagement and personal development efforts — especially attractive to younger generations — are making union representation unnecessary.”

In the same SHRM article, management attorney Michael Lotito argued that “the vast majority of employers treat their employees with dignity and respect, and provide for open dialogue and complaint resolution systems, competitive pay and benefits, and a workplace that outlaws discrimination and harassment.”

While the assertion that today’s workplaces are marked by mutual respect, open dialogue, and fair pay is laughably false, for their part, many human resources professionals envision their work as altruistic. In its mission statement, the Society for Human Resources Management declares, “Our mission is to empower people and workplaces by advancing HR practices and by maximizing human potential. Our vision is to build a world of work that works for all.”

While many HR practitioners may actually have altruistic visions about improving workplaces, there is a naïve arrogance in believing that the way to improve workers’ lives is through dictating friendlier terms and conditions of employment to a workforce that is deprived of an actual voice in their working lives.

Human resources management is big business. The HR consulting industry in the United States generated $24 billion in revenue in 2018 and US companies reported employing 1.4 HR employees for every 100 employees, shelling out an average of $1,087 per employee in HR spending in 2017. Employers are investing billions in human resources management because they know that it allows them to exploit more surplus value from their employees.

The leaders of the field of human resources management have played a key role in denying workers an opportunity to have an authentic voice in the workplace. The Society for Human Resources Management has lobbied aggressively against the NLRB’s joint employer rule which would allow workers to hold parent companies responsible for the unlawful anti-union actions of their franchisees and its snap election rule which would speed up the union election process and protect workers from harassment from management.

The advisory board of Cornell’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies includes the Chief Human Resources Officers of American Express, Archer Daniels Midland, Boeing, HP, SC Johnson, and Shell — all companies that have been members of the notoriously anti-union American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) (although many have since withdrawn their membership out of embarrassment after significant public pressure).

While many human resources practitioners are likely genuinely dedicated to improving conditions for workers, they face a fundamental challenge; HR works for management, not for workers. Moreover, even if HR managers actually had the power to make substantive changes, in the complex set of tradeoffs in wages, hours, working conditions, benefits and all of the other terms of employment why should a manager from a human resources department be the one to decide what’s best for workers. If workers are going to be able to sustainably improve their jobs, they need strong and independent organizations that are accountable to their interests, not management.

For decades this source of worker power has come through the collective bargaining process. Union representation remains a popular option among workers and will continue to play an important role in many workplaces. But as the nature of work continues to change, with the fissuring of workplaces, the rise of independent contractors, and workers splitting increasingly their time between multiple jobs fewer and fewer workers are able to take advantage of the legal framework for traditional union representation.

There is no shortage of promising programs and experiments in new ways of workplace organizing. Through the Fight for $15 and OUR Walmart campaigns SEIU and UFCW have experimented with minority unionism on a large scale. Worker centers in communities around the country are offering monitoring activity, casework, and even health and safety training for workers who do not have the benefit of union representation. The Teamsters, SEIU and ATU are each running programs to organize drivers in the ridesharing industry — either through traditional unionization campaigns or through drivers’ alliances.

Each of these projects and strategies presents new opportunities and new challenges — from questions about how to mobilize sustainable funding to questions of organization and governance. But what is clear is that if workers are going to improve their jobs in the current environment, it will come from organizing, building power, and taking collective action, not by the benevolence of a well-meaning corporate HR manager.

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