Link to Birdie Calendar Employee Ownership and Adversarialism. Discussion questions and essay.

Dear Habermas Logo and Link to Site Index A Justice Site

Gordon Fellman


California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 15, 2001
Latest update: March 15, 2001

United Airlines, Employee Ownership
and Fellman's Call for a Paradigm Shift

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, March 2001. "Fair Use" encouraged.

This essay is based on Gordon Fellman's Rambo and the Dalai Lama, particularly on Fellman's definition and discussion of adversarialism. The need for paradigm shift is applied to an NY Times article, "Divided, An Airline Stumbles: Employee Ownership Experiment Unravels at United.", Section C, page 1, March 14, 2001.

Here is a good, practical example of how obsessive adversarialism operates in our present social structure. This report of difficulties at United Airlines suggests that the switch to employee control was superficial and never abandoned the adversarial approach:

"But as anyone who has flown United recently can attest, something has gone terribly wrong. . . . What happened? In retrospect, it seems obvious: while everybody agreed to call workers "owners," they did not act like owners, and management did not treat them like owners.

If the two sides had worked hard to create a true ownership culture throughout the company, the experiment might have succeeded, industry analysts say. Instead, labor and management displayed a lack of commitment from the start."

Discussion Questions
  1. The United Airlines experiment with employee ownership offered one alternative to adversarialism. Zuckerman claims the experiment remained superficial. What does he mean by that?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    Zuckerman refers to labelling employees as owners, but not really treating them as owners. This is an examplle of changing language without changing underlying behavior. Managers were used to behaving as managers, and they continued to behave that way, even in the new financial structure. Workers were used to having to struggle for fair wages, and they continued to struggle, even when they had putative control of the company. This is an example of what Fellman calls obsessive adversarialism, adversarialism engaged in out of habit, when there is no real need to best the other. In this case the employees actually were the "Other," and so adversarialism was a poor paradigm for their interpersonal relationships with "management."