What is industrial relations? Definition important—setting the scope of study



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Part one The nature and context of industrial relations


Overview



What is industrial relations?

  • Definition important—setting the scope of study.

  • Many attempts at definition:

    • from job regulation to social relations at work.
  • Challenges to the discipline:

    • rise of non-unionism
    • growth of human resource management (HRM)
    • revival of labour economics.
  • A broad definition:

  • ‘industrial relations is about the behaviours and interaction of people at work’.



What is industrial relations? (cont.)

  • Industrial relations (IR) assumes the employment relationship is conflictual:

    • power relations at work.
  • Traditionally, it focused on ‘collective’ aspects of employment.

  • It has expanded to incorporate ‘individual’ aspects.

  • IR is interdisciplinary by nature.



Distinguishing different approaches to the study of employment relations

  • There are three distinct ideological perspectives to origins and nature of industrial relations, each leading to a distinct approach/analytical tool to explain industrial relations:

    • a pluralist perspective, leading to ‘neo-institutional’ approaches
    • a unitarist perspective, which informs human resource management (HRM)
    • a radical perspective, which enables a ‘labour process’ approach.


A pluralist perspective: neo-institutionalism Pluralism

  • First, what is the pluralist perspective?

    • Conflict is inevitable: competing interests between the parties.
    • Power is diffused among the main bargaining groups within the employment relationship: no-one dominates.
    • Trade unions are viewed as providing a mechanism that legitimates employees’ rights to bargain within the workplace.
    • The state is regarded as an impartial entity, whose primary function is to protect the ‘public interest’.


What are the criticisms of pluralism?

  • What are the criticisms of pluralism?

    • Theory of pluralism is unclear.
    • Power is not evenly diffused:
      • it is is typically weighted towards management in the workplace.
    • Emphasis upon rational approach to conflict management:
      • a form of managerialist thinking that obscures.
    • The emphasis on rules and regulations neglects process.


Neo-institutionalism is an extension of pluralist thinking about the role of ‘rule-making’ in the employment relationship.

  • Neo-institutionalism is an extension of pluralist thinking about the role of ‘rule-making’ in the employment relationship.

  • It sees that the employment relationship is governed by two types of rules:

    • formal/informal rules
    • substantive/procedural rules.
  • These rules are made in a broader context: as a result of the forces and imperatives of capitalist social relations, in society and in the workplace.



Other features of the neo-institutionalist approach:

  • Other features of the neo-institutionalist approach:

    • the open-endedness of the employment relationship
    • understands the present in terms of the past
    • seeks to describe and understand the ‘real’ world
    • is not concerned with developing grand theory—develops theory through induction.


What is the unitarist perspective?

  • What is the unitarist perspective?

    • Assumption of a common purpose and shared goals, with no fundamental conflict of interest between labour and capital.
    • Conflict is an aberration, the result of:
    • Unions are seen as an unwelcome intrusion:
      • complete loyalty of employees.
    • Role for strong management.


Approaches within unitarism:

  • Approaches within unitarism:

    • scientific management (Taylorism/scientific management):
      • work study/‘one best way’
      • establishment of work rules.
    • human relations (Mayo/the Hawthorne experiments):
      • emphasis on work groups and social relations at work
      • less importance given to economic incentives.


Approaches within unitarism (cont.):

  • Approaches within unitarism (cont.):

    • neo-human relations (McGregor/Likert/Herzberg):
      • importance of individual needs of workers
      • creating satisfaction from the nature of job.
    • human resource management:
      • emphasis on the management of commitment
      • integration of employees into organisational strategy.


What are the criticisms of unitarism?

  • What are the criticisms of unitarism?

    • A narrow approach that neglects causes of conflict.
    • Fails to explain the prevalence of conflict within organisations.
    • Does not account for uneven distribution of power among employees and employers in the decision-making process.


HRM is the modern form that a unitarist approach to IR typically takes, that is:

  • HRM is the modern form that a unitarist approach to IR typically takes, that is:

    • the management of the employment relationship primarily from the perspective of the employer.
  • This can be seen in the main focuses of HRM:

    • plan human-resource requirements
    • recruit and select employees
    • train and manage employee performance
    • reward employees
    • dismiss or retire employees.


HRM as a scholarly concept is relatively imprecise.

  • HRM as a scholarly concept is relatively imprecise.

  • What is its scope?

    • Is it a study of employer labour-management practices, or
    • is it concerned with the optimal allocation of labour to achieve management’s goals?


The two main schools within the HRM approach are:

  • The two main schools within the HRM approach are:

    • ‘soft’ HRM—‘developmental humanism’
    • ‘hard’ HRM—instrumental integration of employees into firm objectives.
  • ‘Best practice’ approach vs ‘contingency’ approach.



‘Soft’ HRM:

  • ‘Soft’ HRM:

    • focuses on individual employees and the management strategies needed to increase employee satisfaction, organisational commitment, motivation and work performance
    • employees have universal needs, best identified and met using techniques drawn from psychology and organisational behaviour
    • the techniques of management, aimed at achieving these goals, are considered to be ‘best practice’, the ‘best’ ways to develop employees towards organisational goals.


‘Hard’ HRM:

  • ‘Hard’ HRM:

    • focuses on the better integration of HR strategies into business strategy
    • employees are seen as a commodity to be better allocated, in order to assist the achievement of business strategies
    • decisions about the adoption of specific HRM policy becomes increasingly about cost–benefit analysis.
  • Management’s aims are to achieve ‘best fit’ between HR strategy and business strategy.



Criticisms of HRM approaches:

  • Criticisms of HRM approaches:

    • both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ HRM lack empirical evidence confirming prescriptions.
    • ‘soft’ HRM has fundamental contradictions:
      • individual performance and development, and team-based cooperation
      • implementing organisational flexibility can undermine the stability, trust and long-term development needed to achieve organisational goals
      • HR’s championing of organisational culture can conflict with the desire for flexibility.


A radical perspective: The labour process Radicalism

  • What are the common features of radical perspectives?

    • Fundamental and inherent conflicting interests between management and workers.
    • Uneven distribution of power between bargaining groups, within the workplace and society.
    • The role of trade unions—to challenge managerial control.
    • The state protects the interests of capitalists.


A radical perspective: The labour process (cont.) Radicalism (cont.)

  • What are the criticisms of a radical perspective?

    • Preoccupied with conflict:
      • obscures any cooperation or shared goals between management and workers.
    • Class struggle not part of modern capitalism.
    • Capital is not homogenous:
      • competition among capitalists.
    • Under-estimates the independence of the state.


A radical perspective: The labour process (cont.) Class struggle and control in the labour process

  • Marx argued that capital social relations are based on a fundamental divide between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

  • Labour possesses labour power—the potential effort that each employee offers.

  • Potential labour does not always equal actual labour.

  • Management’s task is to convert this labour power into actual work and effort, in order to make a profit.



A radical perspective: The labour process (cont.) Class struggle and control in the labour process (cont.)

  • This gives rise to the central theme within the labour-process approach: How does management maximise the conversion of ‘potential’ labour into ‘actual’ labour?

    • Labour is not always compliant in this process, resulting in conflict between management and labour.
    • As this relationship is open-ended, management seeks to establish methods for ensuring control, to maximise ‘actual’ labour effort.


A radical perspective: The labour process (cont.) Class struggle and control in the labour process (cont.)

  • The labour-process argument: How does management maximise the conversion of labour power into actual labour?

    • Braverman (1974) argued that management seeks control and improved performance through deskilling labour.
    • Friedman (1977) argued that management could use either:
      • direct control or
      • ‘responsible autonomy’ based approaches.


Final observations

  • Chapter has highlighted three perspectives to the employment relationship:

    • unitarist
    • pluralist
    • Marxist.
  • Each of these approaches are competitors in seeking to explain the nature of the employment relationship:

    • each approach is based on different value judgments.
    • each approach emphasises different aspects of the employment relationship.
  • This text adopts a pluralism/neo-institutionalist approach.



Summary

  • The ‘commonsense’ approach to industrial relations highlights conflict between trade unions and employers:

    • Need to move beyond this limited view.
    • Theory provides a guide to understanding the relationship between the parties in the employment relationship.
  • Three types of theories are introduced in this chapter:

    • pluralist/neo-institutionalist
    • unitarist/HRM
    • radical/labour-process theory.




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