Your Guide to Organizational Leadership Degrees with a Focus in Labor Relations

Written by Scott Wilson

labor relations

The American labor movement helped build the country you live in today.

Union workers dug the coal and minerals that fueled the great factories of the nation. They dig them still. The fruits of those labors traveled across the country on trains run by union workers into great factories turning out steel and automobiles and every other sort of product. They are still running those trains right now. The products they carry were loaded onto freighters for destinations around the world by unionized dock workers—who still load them today.

Everywhere around us, the accomplishments of a unionized workforce stand tall. From the Maine Natural Gas Pipeline that brings heat to the Northeast, to U.S. Bank Stadium where thousands watch the Vikings play each year, to great buildings like the Freedom Tower where we work and live.

Those achievements were made possible and made safer and stronger through union advocacy. From having the highest rate of industrial accidents in the world around 1900, union demands helped drop workplace death and injury rates by 30 percent and 43 percent respectively by 1995 according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).

That influence extends far beyond unionized workplaces. The culture of safety and respect spread as a benefit through all American businesses and organizations. It sets a standard that even non-union shops are expected to meet today.

But all those accomplishments didn’t come easily. For both early labor organizers, and for the great titans of industry who ran the industries in which they worked, real leadership was needed to forge a path through dispute and emotion.

Today, with a workforce in flux, those leadership skills are more necessary than ever to create productive, safe, and just places of business for American workers.

Labor Relations Skills Are Put To the Test For Leaders in Every Industry

workers strikingLabor relations is actually a broad field, spanning academic, governmental, and business contexts.

For leaders, labor relations boil down to engaging with your workforce in productive and mutually beneficial ways. Of course, this lines right up with the overall mindset represented in organizational leadership training, which stresses alignment and development as part of the bargain.

But dealing with labor law, unions, and collective bargaining agreements requires a special subset of leadership skill.

It’s a skill that even leaders in non-union industries or organizations can benefit from. Labor relations is a field that has been shaped by unionization, both in the regulatory environment and in workforce expectations. So the standards and the rules are well-worth mastering no matter what kind of organization you work in.

Developing the Knowledge and Skills To Lead Effectively in the Modern Labor Market

Effective labor relations requires a complex skillset and knowledge base for leaders in management. Many of the skills overlap with other basic practices in organizational leadership:

But they have to be combined with a detailed understanding of topics such as:

While many leaders will be sitting on the employer side of the table in labor negotiations meetings, it’s also worth remembering that unions themselves are large organizations with leaders responsible for getting the best possible bargain and representing the interests of their members.

Leadership skills in labor relations can be exercised from either the employer or the employee perspective. Labor leaders have a big role in managing relations with employers as well as vice versa.

No matter which path you are aiming toward, leadership and labor relations skills are not something you just pick up along the way. A formal education is the only way to develop the deep knowledge of law, regulation, labor theory, and leadership techniques to make you a maestro of workforce relationships.

Looking for Degrees To Boost Your Skills in Labor Relations as a Leader

diverse study groupLabor relations are traditionally the domain of the human resources department. Many HR degrees offer concentrations in labor relations. There are even specialized degrees available in Labor Relations and Human Resources, or Employment and Labor Relations.

But like other HR-focused degrees, these usually leave out the organizational leadership training that is essential for the most effective employer and labor relationships.

For programs that combine organizational leadership training and labor relations skills, you may have to dig a little deeper. You will find degrees such as a Master of Science in Management with a concentration in Employment Relations, or a Master of Labor and Employment Relations – Organizational Leadership and Change Specialization clearly focused on labor relations skills with leadership training as part of the mix.

But you may have to dig past the degree titles in some cases. For example, a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership with a concentration on Human Capital in Organizations may also cover similar material. There are also Master’s in Labor and Employment Relations – Labor and Community Leadership Specializations or degrees like a Master of Professional Studies in Labor and Global Worker’s Rights with a specialization in Labor Leadership to choose from.

Finally, it’s worth looking at human resources programs that mix leadership and labor relations skills together. A Master in Professional Studies – Human Resources Leadership with Employment and HR Law Concentration is aimed squarely at HR leaders who need to dive into the deep subjects of labor relations and employment law for their organization.

Bachelor’s and Certificate Program Options for Building Labor Relations Leadership Skills

factory meetingFor the most part, you’ll find these types of degree programs offered at more advanced levels, with graduate studies being the norm. Since it’s usually senior leaders who are calling the shots in labor negotiations, that makes perfect sense. But if you want to lay the groundwork for that kind of high-ranking position even in your undergraduate studies, you can find certain programs that will offer foundational knowledge, like a Bachelor’s in Labor and Employment Relations with a minor in Work Organization and Management or a Bachelor of Arts in Human Capital and Society with a minor in Leadership.

Certificates are a popular option for leaders who don’t have the time to put into full graduate degrees in the field, but who still need a quick injection of labor law and negotiation tactics.

Something like a Certificate in Labor Relations or a Labor Leadership Skills certificate skins off all the extra layers of classes and other graduate-level studies and gives you only the core elements of skill development you need. Although you might not have all the context and polish that comes with a complete degree, neither do you have to fork over all the cash or time a degree requires. This can make a certificate a great option for someone with strong leadership skills overall, and a small gap to cover in labor and employment specifically.

Online Studies in Labor Relations Open Up Options and Save Precious Time for Busy Leaders

late night studyingYou’ll find that most of the kinds of programs that cultivate your leadership and labor relations expertise are available online today. And that’s a good thing, because by the time you get to the point in your life and career where you are looking at this kind of training, you probably have some real obstacles to attending a traditional on-campus program.

You are very likely to already have a position at work with some level of management responsibility. That fixes you pretty well in place in whatever city that job is in, which restricts the number of traditional programs you could even consider. And you may well have a house, a family, and social obligations that eat up a lot of your day, which would limit the hours you would even be available to show up in a classroom.

Online programs throw all those concerns out the window. A school across the country is just as much an option as one across town. And with asynchronous classes, you do your schoolwork on your own time, whenever and wherever that is convenient. On the bleachers on your phone during your kid’s basketball practice? No problem. While you’re waiting for some interminable meeting to start in the conference room at work? Get ‘er done.

Both degrees and certificates come in this convenient package. The curriculum and quality come at the same level as traditional formats.

A Curriculum That Sets Labor Relations Studies Apart in Leadership Programs

Every kind of college leadership degree includes a lot of classes that have skillsets that overlap with labor relations. Any random organizational leadership program will have courses that develop vital labor relations skills such as:

But concentrations or degrees that focus specifically on labor relations and employment will both offer those studies in a context that is specific to workforce management, and throw in additional coursework that offers critical knowledge in the field. Those courses will include:

A History of Organized Labor

It’s tough to really grasp all the important details and concepts of the modern labor movement and the standards and regulatory structures without a detailed understanding of the history of the labor movement. These courses will take you back to the foundations of American unionization and collective bargaining efforts, letting you take a look at both historical and modern political and social impacts driven by those movements.

Labor Law

One of the hardest parts of labor relations skills to master is a command of employment law. Governed by both federal and state laws and regulations, the obligations of leaders in workforce management, bargaining, and handling workplace complaints are extremely detailed and not remotely optional. Your classes in labor and employment law will cover both the theory and intent, as well as the actual practical implications of laws on the books today, as well as likely developments in future legislation or court rulings.

Theories of Labor and Employment Relations

A taste of the academic side of labor analysis is part of most degrees in this field. You’ll go back again through the historical views of labor and labor markets, this time informed with the work of scholars and philosophers who analyze relations between employers and workers and the nature of power in those relationships. It’s a background that can help you understand the context of labor relations and understand the perspectives of the other side of the table, whichever side you are on.

International Labor Relations and Globalization

Globalization has been a major force that has shaken up organized labor in the United States over the past decades. At the same time, large international corporations have to deal with labor laws and social expectations of employment that can vary from country to country and culture to culture. These courses give you the big picture of international labor and how pressures are created in local labor markets by the spread of globalization.

Work and Society

Work is one of the foundations of modern capitalist society. The cultural and social perspectives on work and workers can have significant influence in labor relations, from public perception to the self-image and work ethic of employees themselves. You’ll also look at the changing social perceptions of organized labor movements, and possible future paths that those perceptions may take.

Any master’s program comes with far more than just coursework, however. You’re also likely to find valuable internship and other experiential learning opportunities in most degrees. These can put you right on the front lines of high-stakes labor negotiations, court cases, or just the day-to-day governance of large workforces. With the skilled guidance of labor relations leaders with decades of experience behind them, you’ll cultivate your own expertise and ideas to take you career into the future.

Electives Allow Further Specialization in Labor Relations Leadership Skills

teamwork in the factoryOn top of that vital core knowledge, most degrees in leadership and labor relations offer a wealth of elective options that can help you hone your expertise even further.

These can come together to turn you into a specialist in contract negotiations, a highly respected labor organizer, or an expert in esoteric areas such as public sector labor law. They can include classes like:

Whether you opt to specialize in any of these areas or just choose to take a broad new knowledge and skill in labor relations back to your current leadership position, you’ll find a valuable set of tools in your kit. Whether or not your workplace is unionized, understanding labor law and labor relationships gives you valuable perspective as a manager. Building stronger bridges between management and labor is a key function of leaders in either movement. With the right education, nothing will stand in your way.