Abstract: A Cooperative Approach to Employee Relations: Office Automation, Worker Alienation, and Human Resources in the 1970s and 1980s

Allison Elias


New management strategies in the 1970s and 1980s challenged the adversarial model of employee relations that had driven the success of traditional trade unions. As women office workers in banks and insurance companies expressed dissatisfaction with their increasingly automated jobs, managers aimed to improve clericals' quality of work life, using new and rediscovered approaches to worker productivity. These theories promised employees greater influence over daily tasks, and they encouraged greater communication between employees and employers. However, shifting management strategies also undermined clerical workers by undercutting unionism; clerical unions struggled to take hold. Thus, a cooperative approach to employee relations represented virtue and vice for clerical workers, who constituted one-third of all women in the paid labor force in these decades. In model firms, human resources (HR) would provide individuals with access to a variety of positions based on their skills and interests. Yet the evolving field of HR management, which made development of human capital central to a firm's core strategy, weakened clericals' economic claims. Workplace fairness came to mean providing employees with opportunities to find their best fit within an organization. While emerging HR standards functioned well for professionals in higher-salary and higher-status positions, they did not help clerical workers in their efforts to reappraise the economic and cultural value of clerical work itself. Movement out of sex-segregated jobs became the solution to low pay. Without strong equal employment opportunity mandates, labor-management cooperation meant that women who remained clericals had no recourse for pay inequity or dead-end jobs in the modern corporation.