The role played by management

It is often suggested that we now enjoy “new industrial relations” in Britain. Discuss the extent to which industrial relations have been transformed in recent years and analyse the role played by management. Method In discussing the extent to which industrial relations have been transformed in recent years, one is immediately forced to consider the term ‘industrial relations’. Arguably, there is now a dominant paradigm of a pluralist kind, wherein employers and employees are understood to be roughly comparable entities in terms of power.

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Thus the process of negotiation is conventionally understood as one in which ‘Employees and organisations have reciprocal obligations and mutual commitments’ (Strebel 1996:87), and that mutually advantageous outcomes are both possible and desirable. Here though I offer a rather different interpretation of industrial relations, one which is critical of the pluralist paradigm, and which seeks to explain why industrial relations have taken the turn they have in relation to broader developments.

In particular, I stress the institutional effects of what has been characterised as the ‘end of left and right’ (Giddens 1994), the sea change in consciousness over the course of the previous decade and more, chrystallised by the collapse of ‘the only rival to the capitalist market economy that the industrial world has ever known’ (Marquand 1993:44). The consequences of this dramatic shift in the terms of political reference have proven to be widespread and thoroughgoing.

From the Monarchy through Church and State and on to the Trade Unions, no section of society has been immune from a dynamic which has corroded established norms of authority and legitimacy. Whilst the structural forms of these institutions often remain intact, their social role has invariably been called into question. This of course begs the question as to the role of industrial relations, whether or not this is an essentially conflictual arena or merely one sphere amongst many in which a plurality of values and interests are expressed and reconciled.

Here I perceive there is a necessity to explain change, rather than merely describe it. Necessarily ahistorical, pluralism tends to idealise and ‘naturalise’ social relationships which are in reality wholly contingent. This applies to wage labour as much as it does the family, the rule of law or political parties. This, then, is my basic methodological orientation. Introduction

Whether one thinks of recent globally constituted trends as the ‘End of History’ (Fukuyama 1992, Fukuyama 1995), ‘the end of certainty’ (Handy 1996:18), the ‘third wave’ (Toffler 1980, Toffler & Toffler 1997) or simply as ‘a new phase of world-wide economic competition’ (Thurow 1997:229), there is no shortage of commentators who recognise that something new is afoot. For some commentators this is a cyclical affair, but for most there is a recognition that there is no going back. New forms of organisation are required, new modes of operating, new ways of expressing ourselves, new methods of doing industrial relations.

In discussing the new industrial relations (NIR) I wish to develop a single point, which has as its core the idea that ‘the end of left and right’ begets as many problems for elites, in this respect managers, as it does for workers. Contrary to what many expected, the ‘end of history’ did not equal the triumph of liberal capitalism. Instead it seemed to induce a wave of insecurity and introspection across the developed West, which now takes its most acute form in the area of ‘risk consciousness’.

As one observer notes, ‘optimism is distinctly out of fashion’ (Fredi 1992:1), and here I explore how this is manifested in terms of management. Stated baldly, my thesis seeks to understand why the demise of trade unionism has not resulted in a rising sense of confidence on the part of managers. More crudely still; why has the workers loss not been the bosses gain The extent of change As suggested above, change, at the broadest level imaginable, has been both extensive and intensive over the past decade or so. Here we are concerned with the extent of change at the level of industrial relations.

A recent report from the authoritative International Labour Office (ILO) in Geneva, concludes with four key observations. Looking at European countries between 1970-93 the study notes a declining strike rate in general, a marked relative propensity to strike in certain south European countries, the existence of several labour dispute models, and finally an inverse correlation between the frequency and the duration or intensity of disputes (Aligisakis 1997:93). As one might expect, the ‘strike rate in western Europe reached its peak during the 1975-79 period:

But a downward tendency occurred over the last 15 years’ (81). The UK is regarded as a state wherein the propensity to strike has been falling, ‘especially since the 1980s’ (90), an explanation for which is the pressure of ‘restrictive legislation’ (91). Nonetheless, the UK ranks alongside Austria, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg in still having a 40-55 per cent rate of unionisation (92), thus giving some support to the notion that relatively high levels of unionisation correlate with a relatively low propensity to strike.

That this is a hypothesis with which the author is uneasy, stating that it is ‘neither validated nor invalidated’ (92), reflects the complexity of data, which ranges extensively in terms of time and space. For our purposes though, it is enough to situate the UK amidst the broader trends of European industrial relations, and to note the extent to which developments here are more or less reflected in those states which are at a similar level of political and economic maturity. Whilst other factors should ideally be considered, such as the determining role of the cultural context (c.f. Inglehart 1990), these are overlooked in favour of the general observation that the UK is unexceptional in terms of its industrial disputes.

Strike rates, however, are in many respects an outcome of industrial relations, and as such are symptomatic. More pertinent are the underlying causes. These can be classified in terms of two broad processes, which are not mutually exclusive, and which both overlap to a considerable degree, but which help to explain as well as describe. These two categories are ‘New Right’ and ‘communitarian’.

The blend of social conservatism and economic liberalism characteristic of the New Right is well known (c. f. Jessop et al. 1988). The significant point to note is the extent to which this body of political thought and action succeeded in winning the argument ‘that all alternatives to markets are deeply flawed’ (Gamble 1986:40). Consensus style politics, as embedded in Industrial Relations, were to change. In its place came a period of transition, the peculiar characteristics of which are less significant than the fact that it happened to coincide with the birth of what is popularly known as the New World Order.

This sparked the search for new modes of legitimacy throughout the developed world. One consequence of that search was the rise of the communitarian agenda, as manifested in the USA in ‘Clintonism’ and in Britain in the election of ‘New Labour’. Again, the broad outline of this agenda is familiar to many (c. f. Etzioni 1995, Fukuyama 1995), and here I wish only to flag-up its role in the transformation of industrial relations. It is the communitarian agenda which informs and underpins the new industrial relations, salvaging the idea of worker representation/participation but upon an entirely new basis.

The key point to recognise is the way in which this salvaging develops in the wake of the de-legitimation of the very idea of an alternative to market relations. It is this which goes some way to explaining the apparent continuity of many institutions associated with industrial relations, whilst also explaining the extent to which those institutions have in substance been transformed. If this interpretation is accepted as a (very general) outline of the processes underlying and explaining the extent of the shift to a new style of industrial relations, then it remains to assess the role played by management.