Analyzing and Resolving Class Conflict
By Richard E. Rubenstein
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
"Analyzing and Resolving Class Conflict," by Richard E. Rubenstein, in Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice, Dennis J.D. Sandole and Hugo van der Merwe, eds., (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 146-157.
As the field of conflict analysis and resolution has developed, scholars have shifted their focus from settling interest-based disputes in traditional venues to addressing profoundly alienated social relationships between people who do not have access to legitimated institutions for conflict resolution. Whereas the goal of alternative dispute resolution is to create a consensual interest-based settlement, the modern goal of conflict resolution is to identify and eliminate the systematic causes of conflict. Conflict resolution scholars focus less on negotiation and interests, and more on human needs and the root causes of conflict.
Rubenstein observes "at least since the 1930s, conflicts between social classes in most modern capitalist states have been dealt with as negotiable interest-based disputes."(p. 147) They have been seen as labor-management disputes over the price and conditions of labor within a market economy, and so as basically similar to any other marketplace dispute.
Conflict resolution theorists in turn have devoted their attention to ethnic, religious or ideological conflicts. While such conflicts often have quantifiable interest-based and economic elements, these conflicts are fundamentally driven by qualitative issues, such as the need for identity and recognition. Bargaining is seen as an inadequate and inappropriate approach to resolving such conflicts.
Rubenstein asks how class conflict came to be viewed as a matter for dispute settlement, rather than conflict resolution. He argues that "at the heart of the argument that labor-management disputes are proper subjects for dispute settlement, not conflict resolution, lies a tautological and often quite partisan assumption--that the parties to conflict are interest groups rather than representatives of social classes."(p. 149)
Interest groups are made up of people who share some specific, relatively narrow interest. They are organized to promote that specific interest. Interest groups do not seek to represent the whole person, or to promote basic human needs. Individuals may belong to a variety of different interest groups. The members of an interest group may come from a variety of different classes and identity groups.
Rubenstein says, "Economic or noneconomic, what interest groups share is a commitment to negotiate with other groups or with the state within a commonly held normative framework."(p. 149) The organization of interest groups assumes that the basic structure of society and distribution of power is necessary or just, and that the system can in principle satisfy basic human needs. Interest groups play a representative role within established social institutions, not a revolutionary role.
American labor unions originated as class-conscious organizations. They aspired to represent the needs of workers as whole persons, and to create fundamental social change in a system seen as unjust and unable, even in principle, to satisfy workers' basic needs for identity, recognition, solidarity and personal development. As a result of political alliances made during the New Deal and anti-Communist sentiment, labor organizations struck a deal with the representatives of capital: "in exchange for recognition of the right to organize unions, to compel large companies to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions, and to strike, organized labor would surrender its claim to represent the working class as a whole and to represent union member in their capacities other than that of 'employees' of particular companies or industries. Essential to this bargain was labor's agreement to recognize the legitimacy of management (i.e., of capitalist ownership, the profit-driven market, and 'management rights' in the conduct of business) and the state's legitimacy as a neutral third-party capable of settling labor-management disputes."(p. 151)
Rubenstein argues that the eventual obsolescence of labor unions was "inherent in the organization of interest groups seeking only to represent the immediate, partial, and transient interests of individuals rather than their long-term needs and interests."(p. 151) When American economic conditions shifted in the early 1970s, individual worker's immediate interests diverged, and unions (interest groups) disintegrated. Domestic labor saw their interests (seen narrowly from within a given capitalist framework) as opposed to foreign labor, workers in declining industries saw their interests as opposed to workers in competitive industries.
The decline and disintegration of labor organizations undermines the use of dispute resolution. Rubenstein argues that "as the interest groups purporting to represent workers weaken or disappear, the social contract allocating rights and duties to unions and companies--the consensual framework for dispute resolution--comes undone."(p. 152) In the absence of effective labor representation there can be no consensual, two-party negotiations. Instead labor relations becomes an exercise in corporate management of a disorganized labor force.
If labor organizations continue to decline, Rubenstein sees two alternatives. Workers will reconstitute themselves as a class and reassert their common class identity and basic needs. Workers will join interest groups that include their company's owners in a form of corporatism. The author notes that "the historic association of this socioeconomic model [corporatism] with ruthless exploitation of labor and bellicose imperialism does not bode well for conflict resolution."(p. 153) In either case, the failure of a social system to meet people's basic needs and long term interests will lead to instability and even violence.
Contemporary labor conflicts will be more adequately addressed by conflict resolution approaches than by continued use of dispute settlement. "Unlike the practitioner of dispute settlement, who assists parties to function within an accepted framework of social norms and institutions, the conflict-resolver will assume the task of helping them to create a new social contract capable of satisfying long-term human needs and class interests."(p. 153)
Rubenstein outlines a four-stage conflict resolution process for class conflict. In the first stage, third-party facilitators must identify relevant parties, locating representatives of enduring identities rather than representatives of short-term interests. Facilitators would inform the parties of the benefits of engaging in conflict resolution, and the likely costs of continuing the conflict.
The next task is to develop a forum for the conflict resolution process. Rubenstein suggests that the analytic problem-solving workshop (APSW) format is likely the most appropriate. "The advantages of APSW are that it is private, enabling parties' representatives to participate in analysis outside the glare of publicity; it focuses their attention on problem-solving to satisfy basic needs rather than on bargaining to satisfy immediate interests; it facilitates the envisioning of alternative systems; and that panels of facilitators have developed some expertise in using the process in other cases of serious and violent social conflict."(p. 155)
The workshop would proceed in four phases: defining the problem, envisioning alternatives, evaluating the alternatives, and reaching consensus on a solution. Getting the parties to imagine creative and original alternative to current economic models may be the most difficult challenge at this stage.
The final stage in the conflict resolution process is implementation. Workshop participants must design processes to present their solution to constituent groups and to secure constituent input and ratification. Rubenstein explains, "the aim of such processes would be to test a proposal's ability to command consensual support, not just majority approval. Popular democracy, which functions so poorly in a universe of interest groups, might at this point become a living reality."(p. 156)