In What’s a Good Job? Lowe and Schellenberg expand our understanding of work by focusing on “changing employment relationships.” The intention is to “document why good employment relationships are important for workers, employers and public policy.”
This thoroughly researched report is based on a survey of 2,500 employed people, conducted in February-March 2000, and supplemented by subsequent focus groups. The analysis of employment relationships unfolds in clearly laid out chapters: a section on methodology; an examination of non-standard work (chapter 4); the legal basis of contracts and the role of unions and associations (chapter 5); a mapping of employment relationships and the sources of variation in employment relationships (chapters 6 and 7); and a new perspective gleaned from a remapping of employment relationships according to their strength or weakness (chapter 8). Finally, the implications for workers, employers and public policy are examined on the basis of the study’s findings. The exploration of the legal aspects of employment relationships and the social-psychological dimensions of trust, commitment, influence and communication form the focus of the study as a whole. The factors associated with higher and lower levels of these dimensions are identified, the explanations are clear though not simplistic and the dynamics of complex change processes carefully unravelled.
A significant contribution is the analysis of temporary jobs and agencies and the growing category of self-employment. The significance of the links between paid work, family and home are also explored. Only about one in four respondents, for example, were found to have access to a medical or dental plan. Notable as well is the finding from survey respondents that the distinction between paid employment and self-employment and between permanent and temporary jobs has become substantively blurred. Although the majority of temporary help agency workers desire full-employment, many are already found to view themselves as permanent due to their ongoing relationship with one agency. Another finding tells us that 12% of self-employed individuals overlap with paid employment to such an extent they could well be “disguised employees.”
The chapters concerning the social and psychological dimensions of employment relationships of trust, commitment, communication and influence reveal that the strength of an individual’s employment relationship primarily reflects the environment in which they work rather than being a function of their personal characteristics such as age, gender, level of education, etc.
Of particular interest to this reviewer is that union membership was found to be associated with weaker employment relationships on all four dimensions. This finding, while not fully explored, is thought to be associated with higher expectations and awareness amongst the unionized workforce. Is it possible that union members are more aware of structures and relationships of domination and subordination in the workplace? Lowe and Schellenberg raise key questions in their discussion concerning “new” human resources management aimed at cultivating employee trust and commitment such as, “ how can unions ensure that employers’ efforts to strengthen employment relationships does not spell the decline of third-party representation?” Yet these waters unfortunately also remain largely uncharted.
There are a range of further findings from this major research undertaking, many more than can be outlined in this short review, but among them is a new understanding and definition of what constitutes a good job and why the quality of employment relationships is more important to job satisfaction than even pay and benefits. Further, Lowe and Schellenberg explain why such good jobs are also important for employers and public policy.
Earlier drafts of this important study counterposed a “structural approach,” documenting how labour market jobs and workplaces are restructuring and downsizing, to a “relational” approach, emphasizing social-psychological attributes. The final publication views the new work realities in Canada through the lens of employment relationships claiming to “augment the traditional approach,” but any such synthesis of perspectives remains absent. Noticeable by its absence, for example, is any analytically integrated notion of power and social class. Power relations remain key in the workplace and cannot properly be demoted to the vague notion of influence.
By collectively organizing and creating autonomous organizations whether they be unions, professional and staff associations or European works councils, working people are trying to equalize power imbalances and gain more control over their lives. These power imbalances flow from the manner in which the economy and the workplace is organized, where some own and control and many others do not. Such structures of domination and subordination necessarily involve people in relationships both as individuals and members of social groups. It is therefore correct to see social class not as a “thing” or a “category,” but rather as a relationship. Nonetheless, such relationships are rooted in the structures of productive process. By largely omitting any analysis of power and class relations, while appealing to all workplace parties to conceive of a “good job” as in their joint long-term interests, this important study cannot tell us how to get from “here” to “there.” That is, how do working people move from their current employment relationships to a “good job?”
True, this question stems as much from this reviewer’s trade union activity, as from academic interest. But surely if the desired goal is “good jobs” and the evidence suggests there remains a long road to travel to achieve such an objective, it is not unreasonable to expect a discussion that brings together the various threads of this extensive research and suggests directions for change in the workplace, in public policy and in further research. The final chapter in Lowe’s earlier book the Quality of Work (RI/IR 56: 4, ISBN 0-19-541479-9) begins precisely this quest by proposing a “people-centred agenda for work reform” in the belief that “individuals can shape the future of work to meet their needs and aspirations.” It makes a thoughtful beginning. Filling this gap in What’s a Good Job? is also necessary. It would be significantly facilitated by a theoretical approach that actually integrated the “relational” with the “structural.” In so doing, both the conflictual and accommodational dynamics of employee and employer relations could be specified in a manner that provided some direction for the way forward to “good jobs” for all.