Prof. Gary Chaison’s labor expertise makes him a media favorite

In 2009, faced with a 23 percent pay cut and threats to close permanently The Boston Globe, the union employees of New England’s flagship newspaper returned to the bargaining table and settled for a 6 percent wage cut, pension freeze, reduced health care benefits and a five-day unpaid furlough. According to Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at the Clark University Graduate School of Management, the climate of negotiation that took place at the Globe was an example of ultra-concession bargaining, “a new, mean-spirited” strategy on the part of management that would likely change collective bargaining in “significant and lasting ways.”

Ultra-concession bargaining, along with its implications for the future of U.S. labor relations, is the subject of “The New Collective Bargaining” (Springer, June 2012), Chaison’s fifth and most recent book on the subject of organized labor. While acknowledging that bargaining by definition generally involves some degree of concession by all parties, Chaison argues that ultra-concession bargaining reflects a significant shift in the balance of power from unions to management. Where once management feared union power and approached contract negotiations with trepidation, Chaison maintains that the “implicit code of conduct between employers and unions has eroded,” and that management now views collective bargaining as an opportunity to “impose its will on unions, cut costs and make the company more competitive.” In a time of world-wide economic recession, high unemployment and off-shoring, 21st century unions consider themselves fortunate if they can avoid relinquishing previously secured wages and benefits. Where once “unions acted and employers reacted,” management increasingly sets the bargaining agenda, a reversal Chaison characterizes as “symptomatic of the loss of union influence in the workplace and the economy.”

Despite the expansion of organized labor into a variety of employment sectors like education, healthcare and public service, overall union membership has in fact experienced a dramatic decline in the past half century, Chaison says.

In the 1950s almost one-third of eligible workers were part of a bargaining unit; today that figure has dropped to slightly more than 10 percent. The success of ultra-concession bargaining tactics by employers is now possible in part, Chaison argues, because the public at large has become less sympathetic — and in some cases downright hostile — to unions during an era of economic uncertainty and stagnant job growth. Union members are perceived as unwilling to share the sacrifices shouldered by non-union workers, and union demands are viewed as hindering economic recovery.

Chaison suggests that even the normally idealistic younger generation is increasingly indifferent to the weakened position of organized labor.

“I think there’s declining interest among young people in the labor movement,” he observes, “and that creates problems for the unions. Even activists look at unions as large special-interest groups. I think unions have not presented themselves as community or worker-family organizations. They’ve had a narrow agenda, and this agenda is coming back to bite them.”

Nationally recognized as an expert in the field of labor relations, Chaison is consulted regularly by media outlets large and small. Whether at the beach or the grocery store, he’s frequently seen with a cellphone pressed to his ear as he fields calls from journalists around the country. He’s happy to provide his perspective on the latest labor-relations crisis.

“I’ll talk to any reporter from any newspaper, from the smallest to the biggest,” he says. “I don’t like to judge that way. They’re all people who are working for a living. Most of the time, reporters just want to get it right. They’ve gotten conflicting stories from management and labor, and they just want to sort them out and see what’s really going on. All I do is offer background and perspective.”

Chaison acknowledges that media requests for his expertise seem to have become more frequent recently, but explains “it fluctuates widely. It really depends whether there’s a big story out there.” And over the past year, plenty of story opportunities have presented themselves, their visibility heightened in part by the upcoming presidential elections. In just the past few months, he’s been cited in the Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Columbus Dispatch, the Houston Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, on topics ranging from striking Lockheed workers and locked-out union members at American Crystal Sugar Co., to battles over public-employee unions in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, and the absence of AFL-CIO funding for this year’s Democratic National Convention.

Chaison’s experience with collective bargaining extends beyond the purely academic. The one-time union member has coordinated a successful union certification campaign, participated in contract negotiations, and served as a union nominee on mediation and arbitration boards. Chaison maintains that while everyone has an opinion about collective bargaining, real understanding of the issues is often lacking. He wants his audience to understand that “collective bargaining is an incredibly messy process. Everyone knows about it, but few people are that informed. I ask the media and my students to develop some degree of familiarity with the terminology, the intricacies, what’s happening in the background in bargaining.”

And ever mindful of the need to promote Clark University, Chaison has also learned to use his media visibility to bring GSOM into the national spotlight.

“My view is the more you put Clark’s name out there, the better,” Chaison explains. “Students are impressed. Parents see something and contact the students. It can only help Clark.”

“The New Collective Bargaining” is available through Chaison’s previous books include “Unions in America” (Sage Publications, 2006); “Unions and Legitimacy” (Cornell University Press/ILR Press, 2002), with B. Bigelow; “Union Mergers in Hard Times: The View from Five Countries” (Cornell University Press/ILR Press, 1996); and “When Unions Merge” (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1986).