Minnesota Law Review

Guns, Firms, and Zeal: Deconstructing Labor-Management Relations and U.S. Employment Policy

Jared Diamond has received wide acclaim for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book—Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies—which charts the path of human history. Professor Diamond asks why Europeans explored and dominated populations in North America and Africa, rather than the other way around, and he concludes that Europeans prevailed because of guns, germs, and steel, referring to their (1) advanced weapons; (2) devastating epidemics among people who had no immunity to infectious diseases; and (3) other advantages associated with tools and implements made of steel. It is only slightly less ambitious to attempt a deconstruction of labor-management relations in the United States.

There is no shortage of insightful commentary regarding the ebb and flow of U.S. labor and employment policy, unions, and labor-management relations, and this Essay does not dispute any of the diverse views expressed by advocates on all sides. Much of the available analysis, however, leaves unanswered two fundamental questions. First, why have labor-management issues continued to spawn such immense acrimony, seemingly without regard to the state of affairs regarding labor-management relations and changing levels of union representation? Second, does answering the first question provide any insights about potential alternate paths for those who advocate changes in U.S. labor and employment law?

With apologies to Professor Diamond, this Essay suggests three concepts—guns, firms, and zeal—that shed light on these questions. “Guns” refers to the bargaining model central to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), where each side’s leverage largely stems from economic damage it may inflict on the other party. “Firms” refers to companies and unions and their emergence as part of a nationwide economy that existed when the NLRA became law in 1935. “Zeal” refers to the discourse regarding labor-management policy issues that has become so contentious in recent years.

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