Up Close and Personnel: Neither workers nor bosses, human resources professionals straddle two worlds

Source: E. Tammy Kim, Al Jazeera America, October 31, 2015

….In the earliest days of American capitalism, there was no need for human resources or its historical cousins — welfare work, personnel or labor relations. Businesses were small, and laws were few; there was hardly an office, let alone a back office. All that changed about 100 years ago, with the growth of the corporate form and a regulatory state capable of keeping it in check. Human resources as we know it owes its flourishing to unions. It was at the mid-20th-century height of industrial organizing — when nearly a third of American employees belonged to a local — that “thousands of new personnel and labor relations specialists” were hired to navigate “the increasingly abstruse world of collective bargaining,” according to UCLA historian Sanford M. Jacoby. Large nonunion companies recruited their own personnel and newly minted human relations experts to design compensation plans and cultural programs comparable with those in union shops — the surest way to repel labor organizers…..

….This attention to the bottom line signaled a change in philosophy. Ambitious HR managers were told to ditch employee relations and W-2s for visioning meetings and five-year profit plans….

….This tension was on full display at the SHRM convention. On the first morning, I attended a four-hour seminar titled “Labor relations for human resources managers.” It promised an overview of “how labor practices can affect your workplace” in the context of “the National Labor Relations Board’s aggressive recruitment and targeting of nonunion employees.” In other words, a primer on employment law, collective bargaining agreements (the contracts unions negotiate with employers) and rules for worker organizing. The two presenters, an employer-side attorney and a management consultant, began with a rhetorical question, “How do you keep them out?” — unions, that is. …. The speakers were so critical of unions and worker protests that the audience — friendly, even-tempered HR professionals from hotels, manufacturers and government agencies — started to fidget and get defensive….