industrial relations

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industrial relations

the relations between employees and employers, and the study of these relations.

Sociology is but one of a variety of disciplines which have contributed to the study of this area.

Debate between competing theories led Fox (1965) to distinguish between unitarist and pluralist perspectives. In the unitarist perspective, cooperation is normal and organizational efficiency and rationality resides in managerial prerogative; conflict is seen as irrational and due to communications problems, agitators, etc. Pluralists, in contrast, regard conflicts between legitimate interest groups as normal, but resolvable through mutually advantageous collective bargaining procedures. This approach, exemplified in the Donovan Commission (1968), underpinned several reforms to British industrial relations in the I 970s, but has been subjected to several criticisms, e.g.:

  1. that in focusing on the failure of industrial relations institutions to regulate conflict, PLURALISM neglected the inequalities of power and advantage which generate conflict in the first place (Goldthorpe, 1974);
  2. that ‘corporatist’ or Marxist theories provide a better account of industrial relations (see CORPORATISM).

Thus theorists have focused on the attempts by successive postwar governments to deal with industrial relations problems through forms of state intervention which have involved tripartite arrangements (trade unions, employers and the state). Marxist scholars have remained unimpressed with the attempts to radicalize pluralism (Wood and Elliott, 1977). In the Marxist framework, the employment relationship is characterized by class exploitation and there can be no such thing as a fair wage. Conflict is endemic and employers constantly need to legitimate their control. Moreover, pluralist and corporatist views of the state are seen to be naive since capital is regarded as the main beneficiary of state intervention.

In stressing the need to consider employment relationships within the dynamics of capitalist society, a key feature of which is the way the conflict between capital and labour is expressed in class relationships and state activity, Marxists have both produced valuable insights and broadened the study of industrial relations. Nevertheless, this perspective also has its critics. Crouch (1982), for example, suggests that some Marxists underplay the constant choices about goals and means which employees have to make, whilst attempts to ascribe industrial conflict to class relations is unconvincing. The neoliberalist policies pursued by Conservative governments in the UK from the 1980s onwards, theoretically underpinned by the writings of Hayek and Friedman, are founded on a marked distrust of both corporatist institutions and trade unions, and express the unitarist view that many industrial relations problems derive from the excessive use of power by union officials (MacInnes, 1987).

In sum, as with most areas of sociological investigation, the study of industrial relations is marked by theoretical controversy The above perspectives illustrate the point that perceptions of, and prescriptions for, solutions to industrial relations ‘problems’ are inextricably linked to particular theories.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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