Corps de l’article

As its name suggests, this publication addresses labour market and employment regulation in an era when the nation-state has diminished influence and long standing conceptions of institutional industrial relations may be less relevant. The book is a collection of 12 essays written by scholars who write from different perspectives. It has chapters exploring: how globalization has potential to render labour market operation more similar to the functioning of other kinds of markets; the ways self-regulation may serve as an alternative to state-intervention; the industrial-age origins of the social contract and the concerns of those who originally sort to replace feudal notions of work with modern ideas about the performance of large scale capitalist market economies, employee management and worker rights; and, what can be done about contemporary threats to unions. The book mostly discusses its subject matter in the European and North American contexts. Consequently much of its content is set against the backdrop of influences such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the European Union (EU) and a 20 to 30 year public policy trend of economic and financial deregulation. The concern of each chapter is either implied or stated to be less-skilled workers and job-seekers in Western countries. Authors often include consideration of emerging informal, part-time and casual sectors of the labour market.

Bercussson and Estlund’s book is mostly superior to other publications addressing similar subject matter (or at least the ones I am familiar with). In its own way, each of its essays is excellent. Each also belongs in the volume; taking a strategic perspective on the same objective of analysis. In this sense, the book integrates its ideas around the theme that, without external intervention, labour markets in the modern era may be characterized as “rushing towards a rising bottom.” Although I thought a little more explanation of this conception would have been helpful, I mostly understood it to be somewhat akin to an averaging effect whereby workers in poorer countries receive better wages and conditions at the expense of their richer Western counterparts.

The book has three key strengths. First, despite its authors generally being concerned about those who may experience labour market disadvantage, essays do not become bogged down with institutional affiliations. This gives the work an innovative and creative dimension; and makes it especially relevant to the first decade of the 21st century. For example; in chapters 10 and 11 there are thoughtful discussions of alternatives to unions. In these, the advocacy and representative functions of organized labour are dissected from orthodox ideas about structure. The result is a lively exploration of options for achieving employee voice. These discussions are sensitive to contemporary influences such as demographic changes and technological advancement.

A second attractive feature of the book is the willingness of its authors to put a new spin on phenomena which are normally seen as matters about which we all agree. A good example of such iconoclasm is found in Chapter 4 where the origins and significance of the industrial revolution are discussed. Here a strong case is made that the industrial revolution is somewhat more complex than it is often perceived to be. Specifically, it is convincingly argued that the modern notion of the employment contract is not really a response to or consequence of widespread industrialization in the mid-1700s but rather came much later, perhaps as late as the early 20th century. From this premise theories are presented which challenge orthodoxy about the origins of labour law in various European countries. The upshot of this discussion is a compelling critique of the proposition that nations which rely heavily on common-law have an emphasis on market-mediated regulation and those which rely mostly on civil law emphasize state-intervention.

A third advantage of the book is its tight integration. Each chapter has something to say about labour market regulation and, mostly, good rationale is given or implied for inclusion of material. Overall, the volume paints a detailed portrait of the cutting edge of public policy research about labour market management. Another aspect of the book’s tight integration is the sympathies of authors. Despite their disparate professional backgrounds, they appear concerned with protecting and enhancing the conditions, rights and living standards of potential victims of globalization.

One element of the book that I found disappointing is the way it uses language. Sometimes, I thought that explanations were unduly complex and verbose. In this vein, I had a few problems with the style of some of the chapters. In certain cases it took me a while to appreciate the argument(s) and, in particular, understand how points were relevant to labour market regulation. However, ultimately I was convinced that each had something important to say about the primary object of analysis.

Another criticism I have of the book concerns the “rush towards a rising bottom” argument. On page four two statements are made which I found curious: “There is evidence of economic gains in those countries to which production ifs flowing….” and “There must be a better way of improving the living standards of the developing world without impoverishing the workers of the developed world.” The surrounding discussion raised my expectations that I might find a breakthrough about this issue and I spent the rest of the book looking for this “better way.” My search was somewhat in vain. Although I gained insight about the subject matter and had some of my assumptions challenged, I did not believe that I got to the heart of “the better way.”

Bercusson and Estland’s is an important work. My criticisms of it mostly address matters of style. On the other hand, I have no hesitation in praising the book’s substance. If you want to develop a sophisticated appreciation of labour market management options in the modern world and, at the same time, receive a re-education about labour-market institutions, Bercusson and Estland’s new publication should not be ignored.