Thursday, 29 May 2008

Industrial relations: what are they?

The widely accepted definition of industrial relations as the study of job regulation emphasises an interpretation of work issues being primarily about solving a ‘problem of order’, thus concealing the centrality of power, conflict and instability in Industrial Relations processes and prioritising the aim of maintaining order with the rhetoric of avoiding conflict.

Two perspectives on industrial relations represent contrasting views on organisational interests and authority and preferred methods for containing it.

The conservative unitarist view privileges an account of managers as leaders who develop a unified organisational culture of shared meanings, values and assumptions, on the belief that shared values and loyalties are an automatic source of order, so that any conflict is self-correcting. Managing people along such Taylorist or Fordist lines suggests a system of standard goods produced for a mass market with a privileged few, by natural virtue, at the top of a hierarchy commanding many workers. The emphasis is exclusively on ensuring that the objectives of the organisation are met, whereby people are treated as resources at the ‘disposal’ of managers.

The second perspective, pluralism, by contrast, recognises that various conflicting interests exist within every work organisation. Idealistically, this means that the organisation represents a coalition of interests governed by managers who are supposed to serve the interest of the whole organisation in exercising the discretion allotted them. Realistically, procedural and substantive rules serve to institutionalise conflict, whereby the interests of trade unions and workers are accepted only if they fall within an employer definition of what constitute orderly and reasonable limits and unions do little more than serve a managerial function of compromise and negotiation of workers’ interests.

Consequently, criticised for being untenably relativistic, the pluralist approach exemplifies a postmodern, neoliberal understanding of industrial relations.

Clearly, defining the core of industrial relations as worker injustice is a very different endeavour to the one of negotiating order to ‘get the work done’, the latter ceding priority to the employer’s agenda of labour utilization and control. Reflecting the economic and political priorities of employers and the state, pluralism thus actually reinforces management control and discretion, by making industrial relations much more stable and predictable.

Although common law assumes an employment contract is made between equals, an employer is put by the state in a condition to be a much more powerful collective entity – an aggregate of capital – than an individual employee, who brings no bargaining power to the labour ‘market’.

The work relationship is thus one of power.

Workers are exploited as profit produced by their labour is appropriated as part of an unequal economic relationship, giving industrial conflict a necessarily class character.

Given the resultant importance of worker collective action as a necessary process of control over work relations, unions will fail to protect workers if they make injudicious use of their power, limiting actions to a battle against the effects of the existing system instead of using collective forces to change it. In doing so, they effectively turn the authority of the union against workers and their attempts to resist the attacks of capital or may even become the "lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of workers". In other words, worker collectivism should function as "an effective and situationally specific response to injustice, not an irrelevant anachronism".

In contrast, the prevailing neoliberal pluralist role of the British unions is to develop cooperative social partnerships with employers to whom they must continually justify their existence by demonstrating that they can "‘add value’ to the corporation", while managers are left free to exercise discretion over employment issues without contestation.

Moreover, the prevailing pluralist model of industrial relations does not negate the likelihood that managers in organisations will maintain more conservative views. Indeed, in an effort to gain tighter control over the workforce, employers may examine ways to internalise employee relations and return to unitarist industrial practices, as recent reports indicate is occurring in the HE sector.

No comments: