Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ideology in the Industrial Relations Academy

I had submitted the following article to the website of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), the Employment Policy Research Network or EPRN.  LERA, whose name was once the Industrial Relations Research Association, is the chief learned society that focuses on industrial relations issues.  Another learned society, the Academy of Management, is much larger. It has a division that focuses on human resource management, which is linked to industrial relations. LERA tends to be oriented towards economic analysis and labor's point of view while the Academy of Management tends to emphasize the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology.  Both groups tend to support left-leaning viewpoints.

I had last attended LERA in 2000.  I found its orientation to be slanted toward labor rather than neutral.  I am interested in good analysis, not a slant, and so did not return for 11 years. I did a poster session at the 2011 conference and was dismayed to find an openly Democratic Party orientation. The labor viewpoint is a thing of the past. It is now a Democratic Party/Obama viewpoint.

LERA fails to conform to the minimal expectations of social science, which according to Max Weber needs to be value free.  It appears to not even qualify as a tax exempt educational organization under section 501 c 3 of the Internal Revenue Code, which requires educational organizations to devote less than 15 percent of their time to partisan political advocacy. Every session I attended at LERA involved overt political advocacy.

I forwarded my objections to their proceedings to their website.  I did not expect LERA to post my blog about their ideological groupthink, and they did not disappoint my expectations.  The blog I submitted to them follows:

Ideology in the Industrial Relations Academy
Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D.
Brooklyn College

Early January's 2011 meeting of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) was filled with interesting research, able practitioners and talented researchers. The presentations were uniformly superb and lively.  But a partisan bias marred it.  The partisanship seems to have passed the point at which participants are more than subliminally aware of it.  Further, it bears some of the characteristics of what Irving L. Janis (1982) calls groupthink.   As a remedy, I would suggest the systematic appointment of critical evaluators who do not share the Association's ideology to some or all of its sessions.

Janis (p. 7) describes groupthink as a result of group cohesion that aims to preserve relationships but becomes part of a group's agenda.  He outlines (p. 174) eight symptoms of groupthink.   The partisanship at the LERA meetings potentially reflected as many as six.  These include an unquestioned belief in the group's "inherent morality; "stereotyped views of enemy leaders as…evil"; "self-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus";  "a shared illusion of unanimity";  "direct pressure on any member who expresses strong arguments against any of the group's stereotypes";  and the "emergence of self-appointed mindguards."
Groupthink is counterproductive to LERA's aims.  The Association seeks to understand employment relations, which necessarily resides in an ideological context.  Alternative interpretations can contribute to grasping ideologically embedded alternatives.  As Janis (p. 59) argues:

'The objective assessment of relevant information and the rethinking necessary for developing more differentiated concepts can emerge only out of the crucible of heated debate, which is anathema to the members of a concurrence-seeking group. They tend to retain all the   platitudinous stereotypes that fit in beautifully…"

Because of LERA's position as the leading learned society in the industrial relations field, its groupthink may have broad implications.  The labor movement may suffer because the absence of ideological diversity may limit the range of alternative explanations for and strategies to respond to its decline.  Ideological homogeneity may limit the field's ability to innovate by excluding from academic positions those who do not agree politically with LERA's leadership.  This, in turn, may limit the field's progress.   As Maier (1967) points out, one of the key benefits of any group is diversity of viewpoint, which groupthink can silence. As well, the silencing of debate weakens the very rationale for learned societies, which ought to benefit from a free exchange of ideas that disappears in the face of politically correct ideology.

My criticism of LERA is nothing new.   Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter and Neil Nevitte (2005) found that in universities Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one and that conservatives suffer an earnings and promotion penalty when relevant controls are taken into account.  These claims are controversial, but the controversy itself betokens groupthink: academics' illusion of morality; their resistance to criticism; their self-censorship through the rituals of peer review and collegiality; and their systematic exclusion of any who disagree.

The labor field always has been embedded in activism.  John R. Commons contributed mightily to the legislative initiatives of the Progressive era and John T. Dunlop served as secretary of labor under President Gerald Ford.   But I do not recall from meetings I attended ten or fifteen years ago the consistent ideological drum beat that sounded at the 2011 meeting.  Partisan bias will weaken or eliminate the claim that LERA's and EPRN's research is value free, which in turn limits the possibility that EPRN will be more than another partisan blog and will be viewed as offering anything more than partisan, ideologically-driven advice.  As well, the recent developments in monetary and banking policy have renewed widespread interest in the debates of the Age of Jackson.  The Association's perspective, not really related to the aim of studying labor and employment relations,  that we can rely on the wisdom of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve Bank and the US government to further workers' interests seems, to many Americans, to be out of touch with reality.
Evidence of Partisan Groupthink

Examples of the partisanship at the LERA start at the top.  In a speech that broadly supported the Bush and Obama administrations' subsidies to the financial industry, President Eileen Appelbaum made the following statement at the presidential lunch:

"Republicans don't care about working people. I'm not talking about all Republicans, just the ones we have in Congress."

As well, in a session on unemployment insurance that followed the lunch, four presenters described how the majority of states have underfunded their unemployment insurance funds for the past three decades.  Two possible explanations are moral hazard and the brokerage of political coalitions in state governments.  But the presenters proffered no such explanation. Rather, Christopher O'Leary of the Upjohn Institute suggested that the underfunding of unemployment insurance, which has become particularly severe in the past two years, is due to the opinions of President Ronald Reagan, who left office in 1988.  As well, in a session on public sector bargaining in states without collective bargaining laws, one of the presenters made reference to the "ignorance" of "Republicans" who oppose bargaining.  I was treated to a partisan harangue at every LERA session I attended.  I would go so far to say that speech is not free at LERA and that anyone who does not subscribe to the views of the left wing of the Democratic Party had best keep quiet.

The session on EPRN took place the evening before the presidential lunch. The presenters included Lisa Lynch, who worked for President Clinton, and Seth Harris, who works for President Obama.   The two speakers stated that they had worked together on the Obama campaign.  Former LERA president Thomas Kochan, who is on the EPRN board, stated that there is both a power struggle and an ideological struggle in which EPRN aims to participate and that EPRN aims to address both.  There were no Republicans or others with alternative views present in the discussion.     

In response to the EPRN panel, Professor Emeritus James Scoville of the University of Minnesota stood up from the floor to give an example of the misinformation that characterizes the "mantra" of the "other side."  By "other side" Professor Scoville was referring to the Republican Party and former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, who had made remarks concerning the pay of public sector workers based on information that he had read in USA Today.

The public sector pay issue offers an example of how partisanship can reduce the quality of debate.  Professor Scoville may have been referring to Professor Jeffrey H. Keefe's (2010) monograph "Debunking the Myth of the Overcompensated Public Sector Employee,"  which is linked to the EPRN site and was distributed at the conference registration table. The monograph is an insightful, capably executed analysis that shows that when controls for education, benefits, organizational size and work experience are added to univariate comparisons between public and private sector employees' pay, public sector employees seem to earn less.  

While valuable, Keefe's work omits variables that readily spring to mind that might modify and even reverse his findings.  One is the disutility of public sector versus private sector jobs .  Do government workers work as hard as private sector workers?  Are their outputs subject to the same kind of market discipline? Does public opinion reflect a belief that there is a difference?  These questions may seem distasteful to LERA's leadership and so are not allowed to be asked.  As well, it may be difficult to control for such variables, making any empirical research inconclusive and incapable of debunking anything.
One question that is not difficult to answer is the riskiness of government jobs, for which Keefe does not control.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010) government workers are less than one third as likely as private sector workers to be laid off.  The layoff rates are readily available and easily imputed to industry index variables. Might asking whether a three percent wage differential in light of markedly lower riskiness actually constitutes a wage premium be fair?  Might controlling for risk premiums improve the quality of research that compares the wages of government and private sector workers?  And might such questions be overlooked in an ideologically charged setting chiefly concerned with political and ideological struggle?


I would like to ask the industrial relations community to ask whether the charged climate can be defused.   Political ideology is not prerequisite to the study of broad areas of labor and industrial relations and officers and presenters should avoid discussion of partisan opinion and ideologically charged depictions of  "the other side."  Another step that Janis (p. 262) recommends is the appointment of critical evaluators to raise doubts.  Given peer review processes and long standing ideological bias within LERA, such a process would require special attention.  A third potential step  (p. 264) would be the conscious allocation of presentations to alternative views.  A fourth potential step would be the assignment of devil's advocates roles within sessions (p. 267). A fifth potential step would be the deliberate construction of alternative explanations by those who disagree with the majority of the Association's members. 

None of these approaches will necessarily work or even improve the quality of the meeting.  As well, introduction of people who do not share the LERA membership's homogenous ideology could backfire, creating tension and potentially reducing the quality of debate.  The best organizations can manage dissent collegially, but it is not clear that LERA can.  Moreover, Janis would likely point out that the absence of debate can evidence either groupthink or the simple intimidation of dissenters.  I have no final proof of which underlying process occurs at LERA.  The evidence merely points to a high degree of conformity, the presence of mindguards, the drumming out dissenters, and a high degree of agreement and demonization of Republicans. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics. At, 2010
Janis, I. Groupthink. Second Edition.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
Keefe, J. "Debunking the Myth of the Overcompensated Public Employee. " Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. At
Maier, N.R.F. "The Assets and Liabilities of Group Problems Solving" Psychological Review, Volume 74, Number 4, pp. 239-249.
Rothman, S., Lichter, S. R. and Nevitte, N. "Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty," The Forum: volume 3: Iss. 1, Article 2. At:

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