The role played by management

In the conclusion to an authoritative survey of The New Industrial Relations (Millward 1994:133), it is noted how ‘British industry and commerce appear to be moving towards the situation in which non-managerial employees are treated as a “factor of production”‘. In one sense, of course, employees have always been a factor of production. In another sense though Millward is identifying a significant development, one which is a symptom of the extent to which industrial relations have been transformed in recent years.

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Millward is referring to the declining power of employees in the workplace: ‘Few will doubt that trade unionism has been in retreat and that in many sectors of employment management has “regained the right to manage”‘ (117), he writes, before going on to outline some ways in which this has come about. In this he tells a familiar story, about falling union membership, the growth of single-union deals, the effects of legislation, and the changing composition of the labour market.

The consequence of such developments is that employees now tend to be more distant from the structures of workplace representation, if such structure exist at all. Where they do, there is little in the way of an organic relationship with the firm, which has tended increasingly, in the words of Scott, ‘to make an appeal to workers as individuals’ (1994:18). Treating workers as individuals and viewing workers as a ‘factor of production’ would seem to be two sides of the same coin.

For the management gurus, such as Charles Handy, this is an opportunity to make a virtue out of the necessity to recreate ourselves as ‘Self-managers of our own assets’, enabling us all to forge ahead in the ‘portfolio way of life’ in order to realise the benefits of ‘the Third Age of Living’ (Handy 1996:26-9). More prosaic are the analysts of today’s workplace, where the declining influence of trade unions approximates to the decline of means by which to ‘channel and attenuate conflicts between employers and employees’ (Millward 1994:133). What is striking though is how this process of attenuation is perceived.

By implication Millward is pessimistic, noting how the ‘growth in inequality in wages . . . is being matched by a widening in the inequalities of influence’, a situation which he suggests is more characteristic of ‘the last century’ than this one (133). Echoing this sentiment is the report from the ILO: at the report, the author concludes that: ‘A widespread malaise in labour relations compounds the problems faced by western Europe, which is already gripped by crisis and suffering from the effects of globalisation and weakened social cohesion.

A question that first arose in the nineteenth century is likely to be posed again in the twenty-first century: how to manage social affairs when these are characterised by more diluted, but more elusive, forms of conflict’ (Aligisakis 1997:94) This is a lament for the ‘good old days’. Retrospectively it would seem that the ‘old’ industrial relations did in fact provide a deal of coherence, enabling managers to attenuate conflict.

This point is recognised by Guest, who notes the relationship between ‘the growth of inequality, of insecurity and of arbitrary treatment’ and ‘the decline of trade unionism’, and the inability of HRM to fill that role – ‘too often (the unions) have not been replaced by an enlightened form of HRM of the sort which attracts the enthusiasm of workers. ‘ (1995:138). Enlightened or not, HRM (understood here to be broadly synonymous with NIR) is certainly an attempt to overcome a political problem with a technical solution.

Unable to enthuse workers, managers may understandably be uncertain as to their role, which goes some way to explaining the faintly hysterical notion that Europe is ‘gripped by crisis’. Of course, there is an alternative view. Charles Handy is not alone in proclaiming a new era of opportunity for management. ‘It’s about living the vision, day in day out – embodying it – and empowering every other person in the organization to implement and execute that vision in everything they do’, enthuses one Professor of Business Administration in his discussion of the (messianic ) role for today’s management (Bennis 1997:155).

One need only skim the Harvard Business Review to find examples of managerial confidence, wherein management is still reckoned to have a distinctive leadership role. On the other hand though, one can also detect a distinct strain of doubt, allied to some fundamental disagreements as to what is going on in the world of industrial relations. At the level of doubt, mention has already been made of the ‘risk’ paradigm, the sociology of which cannot be outlined here (c. f. Beck 1992, Fi?? redi 1997).

When business elites (previously defined by the risk-taking qualities implied in the term ‘entrepreneur’) dwell on the need to be ‘wary of increasing the total amount of risk in the system’ (Bernstein 1996:51), then one cannot but suspect that confidence as now of a qualitatively different order. And if uncertainty exists at this level of perception, then it is no surprise to find it at others. Hence, disagreements as to the extent of change in the sphere of industrial relations. For some, such as Millward, ‘The broad conclusion, . . is that the decline in union representation between 1984 and 1990 . . involved a wholesale reduction of the role of trade unions’ (Millward 1994:33).

For others though, ‘the visible contraction and legal restriction of trade unionism in the 1980s has not had a profoundly destructive impact on voluntary collective bargaining or in the pattern of workplace relations in Britain’ (Melling 1996). In a similar vein, Godfrey and Marchington argue that we should not ‘exaggerate the decline in steward influence at the workplace’, as ‘stewards of the 1990s are remarkably similar to those described in earlier studies’ (1996:343).

In other words, there is little in the way of consensus as to the extent of change. This makes it difficult for most commentators to pass any definitive judgement as to the nature of contemporary industrial relations, which is why one might arrive at the conclusion that it is ‘not possible to sustain either the traditional account or the “new industrial relations” thesis’ (Scott 1994:155), and instead opt for something in-between. But this will not do, or at least it is quite unconvincing when attempted.

Scott argues that ‘consensus . . cannot be created by denying that there are differences of interest between workers and managers’, an assumption he understands to be central to the ‘new industrial relations’ paradigm. However, because a frank recognition of the social content of those differences would lead straight back to the ‘traditional account’, he blurs them, in favour of an emphasis upon ‘worker participation in decision-making’ in order to ‘provide legitimacy for business decisions’ (158).

In other words, he rejects the ‘new industrial relations’ thesis, in favour of . . . . the new industrial relations thesis ! Conclusion The plasticity of ‘new industrial relations’ is one of its key qualities, and as I have tried to show, it does not yield to easy definition. The new industrial relations can only be understood in the context of the shifting sands of political legitimacy in general, and the collapse of the left-right spectrum in particular.

Employers and employees constitute inseparable aspects of a social process: if one side moves, the other has traditionally been forced to respond; except that now there are few universally recognised rules of engagement. Social institutions today tend to exhibit a cautious, piecemeal outlook. Hubris is everywhere deprecated, nowhere more so than in the world of industrial relations, where the demise of the old rules of engagement leaves a substantial space that is only weakly filled by the discourse of HRM.

What is notable here is the symmetry of symptoms, the fact that both management and employees tend to lack purpose or confidence. Adversarialism is dismissed as a symptom of an outdated ideology. For others though, the asymmetry of interests between employers and employees is not an idea but a concrete reality, brought home daily in the experience of wage labour. Perhaps it is for this reason that British Social Attitudes finds that ‘government attempts to win over the hearts and minds of British workers to more flexible working patterns have not yet paid dividends’ (Spencer 1996:89).

Whilst one may well concur with the sentiment behind the argument that the ‘”New Industrial Relations” involves a systematic suppression of rank and file dissent’ (Danford 1997:137), this would be to credit NIR with more purpose than it really possesses. Rather, it is the relative absence of systematicity which would seem to be its more essential attribute, and as such we can understand it as very much a product of its period. sbowler@onetel. net. uk


Aligisakis, Maximos. 1997. “Labour disputes in western Europe: Typology and tendencies. ” International Labour Review 136:73-94. Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage. Bennis, Warren. 1997. “Becoming a Leader of Leaders. ” Pp. 148-63 in Rethinking the Future: Business, Principles, Competition, Control, Leadership, Markets and the World, edited by Rowan Gibson. Nicholas Brealey. Bernstein, Peter L. 1996. “The New Religion of Risk Management. ” Harvard Business Review 74(2):47-51. Danford, Andy. 1997. “The ‘New Industrial Relations’ and Class Struggle in the 1990s. ” Capital and Class 61:107-41.