Perspectives on Industrial Relations

Industrial relations is a set of phenomena operating both within and outside the workplace, concerned with determining and regulating the employment relationship. Scholars have described three major theoretical perspectives or frameworks, that contrast in their understanding and analysis of workplace relations. The three important perspectives on industrial relations are generally known as Unitarism, Pluralism and Marxism. Each offers a particular perception of workplace relations and will therefore interpret such events as workplace conflict, the role of unions and job regulation differently.

The three major perspectives on Industrial Relations are;

1. Unitary Perspective

In unitarism, the organization is perceived as an integrated and harmonious system, viewed as one happy family. A core assumption of unitary approach is that management and staff, and all members of the organization share the same objectives, interests and purposes; thus working together, hand-in-hand, towards the shared mutual goals. Furthermore, unitarism has a paternalistic approach where it demands loyalty of all employees. Trade unions are deemed as unnecessary and conflict is perceived as disruptive.

From employee point of view, unitary approach means that:

  • Working practices should be flexible. Individuals should be business process improvement oriented, multi-skilled and ready to tackle with efficiency whatever tasks are required.
  • If a union is recognized, its role is that of a further means of communication between groups of staff and the company.
  • The emphasis is on good relationships and sound terms and conditions of employment.
  • Employee participation in workplace decisions is enabled. This helps in empowering individuals in their roles and emphasizes team work, innovation, creativity, discretion in problem-solving, quality and improvement groups etc.
  • Employees should feel that the skills and expertise of managers supports their endeavors.

From employer point of view, unitary approach means that:

  • Staffing policies should try to unify effort, inspire and motivate employees.
  • The organization’s wider objectives should be properly communicated and discussed with staff.
  • Reward systems should be so designed as to foster to secure loyalty and commitment.
  • Line managers should take ownership of their team/staffing responsibilities.
  • Staff-management conflicts – from the perspective of the unitary framework – are seen as arising from lack of information, inadequate presentation of management’s policies.
  • The personal objectives of every individual employed in the business should be discussed with them and integrated with the organization’s needs

2. Pluralistic Perspective  

In pluralism the organization is perceived as being made up of powerful and divergent sub-groups – management and trade unions. This approach sees conflicts of interest and disagreements between managers and workers over the distribution of profits as normal and inescapable. Consequently, the role of management would lean less towards enforcing and controlling and more toward persuasion and co-ordination. Trade unions are deemed as legitimate representatives of employees. Conflict is dealt by collective bargaining and is viewed not necessarily as a bad thing and if managed could in fact be channeled towards evolution and positive change. Realistic managers should accept conflict to occur. There is a greater propensity for conflict rather than harmony. They should anticipate and resolve this by securing agreed procedures for settling disputes.

The implications of the  pluralistic approach to industrial relations include:

  • The firm should have industrial relations and personnel specialists who advise managers and provide specialist services in respect of staffing and matters relating to union consultation and negotiation.
  • Independent external arbitrators should be used to assist in the resolution of disputes.
  • Union recognition should be encouraged and union representatives given scope to carry out their representative duties
  • Comprehensive collective agreements should be negotiated with unions

3. Marxist Perspective

Marxist perspective is also called radical perspective. This perspective is to reveal the nature of the capitalist society. It thinks that workplace relations are against the history. It recognizes inequalities in power in the employment relationship and in wider society as a whole. Consequently, conflict is perceived as an inevitable result. Whats more, a natural response regarding workers against the capitalism exploitation is seen as trade unions.  This view of industrial relations is a by product of a theory of capitalist society and social change. Marx argued that:

  • Weakness and contradiction inherent in the capitalist system would result in revolution and the ascendancy of socialism over capitalism.
  • Capitalism would foster monopolies.
  • Wages (costs to the capitalist) would be minimized to a subsistence level.
  • Capitalists and workers would compete/be in contention to win ground and establish their constant win-lose struggles would be evident.

This perspective focuses on the fundamental division of interest between capital and labor, and sees workplace relations against this background. It is concerned with the structure and nature of society and assumes that the conflict in employment relationship is reflective of the structure of the society. Conflict is therefore seen as inevitable and trade unions are a natural response of workers to their exploitation by capital.

Differences among Three Perspectives

According to the descriptions toward three perspectives, it is obviously that they have different understandings against conflict. The Unitarist view perceives conflict as a word with derogatory sense and it puts forward three reasons of generating conflict such as agitators, interpersonal friction and communication breakdown. It employs a paternalistic approach, so it is short of the conflict between capital and labor which is the focus of Marxist perspective. Moreover, it does not refer to the solution. On the contrary, the Pluralist view indicates that collective bargaining is the way of tackling conflict. Another difference lies in that sometimes conflict can be positive. It implies the importance of conflict management. It can be seen that the Pluralist view pays much attention to conflict resolution and how to how to manage conflict. Moreover, it considers that the power between parties with different interests is equal, which is just opposite to the Marxist perspective. Actually, the Marxist view is very radical. From its point of view, the inevitability of conflict comes from the inequalities of powers caused by capitalism exploitation. That is to say, different from Unitarist perspective, the Marxist perspective gives different reasons of bringing about conflict.

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