Industrial relations

Industrial relations

Industrial relations is a multidisciplinary field that studies the employment relationship.[1] Industrial relations is increasingly being called employment relations because of the importance of non-industrial employment relationships. Many outsiders[who?] also equate industrial relations to labour relations. Industrial relations studies examine various employment situations, not just ones with a unionized workforce.



Industrial relations has three faces: science building, problem solving, and ethical.[2] In the science building face, industrial relations is part of the social sciences, and it seeks to understand the employment relationship and its institutions through high-quality, rigorous research. In this vein, industrial relations scholarship intersects with scholarship in labor economics, industrial sociology, labor and social history, human resource management, political science, law, and other areas. In the problem solving face, industrial relations seeks to design policies and institutions to help the employment relationship work better. In the ethical face, industrial relations contains strong normative principles about workers and the employment relationship, especially the rejection of treating labor as a commodity in favor of seeing workers as human beings in democratic communities entitled to human rights."The term human relations refers to the whole field of relationship that exists because of the necessary collaboration of men and women in the employment process of modern industry."It is that part of management which is concerned with the management of enterprise -whether machine operator,skilled worker or manager.It deals with either the relationship between the state and employers and workers organisation or the relation between the occupational organisation themselves.

Industrial relations scholarship assumes that labor markets are not perfectly competitive and thus, in contrast to mainstream economic theory, employers typically have greater bargaining power than employees. Industrial relations scholarship also assumes that there are at least some inherent conflicts of interest between employers and employees (for example, higher wages versus higher profits) and thus, in contrast to scholarship in human resource management and organizational behavior, conflict is seen as a natural part of the employment relationship. Industrial relations scholars therefore frequently study the diverse institutional arrangements that characterize and shape the employment relationship—from norms and power structures on the shop floor, to employee voice mechanisms in the workplace, to collective bargaining arrangements at company, regional, or national level, to various levels of public policy and labor law regimes, to "varieties of capitalism" (such as corporatism), social democracy, and neoliberalism).

When labor markets are seen as imperfect, and when the employment relationship includes conflicts of interest, then one cannot rely on markets or managers to always serve workers’ interests, and in extreme cases to prevent worker exploitation. Industrial relations scholars and practitioners therefore support institutional interventions to improve the workings of the employment relationship and to protect workers’ rights. The nature of these institutional interventions, however, differ between two camps within industrial relations.[3] The pluralist camp sees the employment relationship as a mixture of shared interests and conflicts of interests that are largely limited to the employment relationship. In the workplace, pluralists therefore champion grievance procedures, employee voice mechanisms such as works councils and labor unions, collective bargaining, and labor-management partnerships. In the policy arena, pluralists advocate for minimum wage laws, occupational health and safety standards, international labor standards, and other employment and labor laws and public policies.[4] These institutional interventions are all seen as methods for balancing the employment relationship to generate not only economic efficiency, but also employee equity and voice.[5] In contrast, the Marxist-inspired critical camp sees employer-employee conflicts of interest as sharply antagonistic and deeply embedded in the socio-political-economic system. From this perspective, the pursuit of a balanced employment relationship gives too much weight to employers’ interests, and instead deep-seated structural reforms are needed to change the sharply antagonistic employment relationship that is inherent within capitalism. Militant trade unions are thus frequently supported.


Industrial relations has its roots in the industrial revolution which created the modern employment relationship by spawning free labor markets and large-scale industrial organizations with thousands of wage workers.[6] As society wrestled with these massive economic and social changes, labor problems arose. Low wages, long working hours, monotonous and dangerous work, and abusive supervisory practices led to high employee turnover, violent strikes, and the threat of social instability. Intellectually, industrial relations was formed at the end of the 19th century as a middle ground between classical economics and Marxism, with Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb’s Industrial Democracy (1897) being the key intellectual work. Industrial relations thus rejected the classical econ.

Institutionally, industrial relations was founded by John R. Commons when he created the first academic industrial relations program at the University of Wisconsin in 1920. Early financial support for the field came from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who supported progressive labor-management relations in the aftermath of the bloody strike at a Rockefeller-owned coal mine in Colorado. In Britain, another progressive industrialist, Montague Burton, endowed chairs in industrial relations at Leeds, Cardiff and Cambridge in 1930, and the discipline was formalized in the 1950s with the formation of the Oxford School by Allan Flanders and Hugh Clegg.[7]

Industrial relations was formed with a strong problem-solving orientation that rejected both the classical economists’ laissez faire solutions to labor problems and the Marxist solution of class revolution. It is this approach that underlies the New Deal legislation in the United States, such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Theoretical perspectives

Industrial relations scholars have described three major theoretical perspectives or frameworks, that contrast in their understanding and analysis of workplace relations. The three views are generally known as unitarism, pluralist and radical. 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 radical perspective is sometimes referred to as the "conflict model", although this is somewhat ambiguous, as pluralism also tends to see conflict as inherent in workplaces. Radical theories are strongly identified with Marxist theories, although they are not limited to kosala

Unitary perspective

In unitarism, the organization is perceived as an integrated and harmonious whole with the ideal of "one happy family", where management and other members of the staff all share a common purpose, emphasizing mutual cooperation. Furthermore, unitarism has a paternalistic approach where it demands loyalty of all employees, being predominantly managerial in its emphasis and application.

Consequently, trade unions are deemed as unnecessary since the loyalty between employees and organizations are considered mutually exclusive, where there can't be two sides of industry. Conflict is perceived as disruptive and the pathological result of agitators, interpersonal friction and communication breakdown.

Pluralist perspective

In pluralism the organization is perceived as being made up of powerful and divergent sub-groups, each with its own legitimate loyalties and with their own set of objectives and leaders. In particular, the two predominant sub-groups in the pluralistic perspective are the management and trade unions.

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.

Marxist/Radical perspective

This view of industrial relations looks at the nature of the capitalist society, where there is a fundamental division of interest between capital and labour, and sees workplace relations against this background. This perspective sees inequalities of power and economic wealth as having their roots in the nature of the capitalist economic system. Conflict is therefore seen as inevitable and trade unions are a natural response of workers to their exploitation by capital. Whilst there may be periods of acquiescence, the Marxist view would be that institutions of joint regulation would enhance rather than limit management's position as they presume the continuation of capitalism rather than challenge it.

Industrial Relations Today

By many accounts, industrial relations today is in crisis.[8] In academia, its traditional positions are threatened on one side by the dominance of mainstream economics and organizational behavior, and on the other by postmodernism. In policy-making circles, the industrial relations emphasis on institutional intervention is trumped by a neoliberal emphasis on the laissez faire promotion of free markets. In practice, labor unions are declining and fewer companies have industrial relations functions. The number of academic programs in industrial relations is therefore shrinking, and scholars are leaving the field for other areas, especially human resource management and organizational behavior. The importance of work, however, is stronger than ever, and the lessons of industrial relations remain vital. The challenge for industrial relations is to re-establish these connections with the broader academic, policy, and business worlds.


  1. ^ Ackers, Peter (2002) “Reframing Employment Relations: The Case for Neo-Pluralism,” Industrial Relations Journal . Kaufman, Bruce E. (2004) The Global Evolution of Industrial Relations: Events, Ideas, and the IIRA , International Labour Office.
  2. ^ Kaufman, The Global Evolution of Industrial Relations.
  3. ^ Budd, John W. and Bhave, Devasheesh (2008) "Values, Ideologies, and Frames of Reference in Industrial Relations," in Sage Handbook of Industrial Relations, Sage.
  4. ^ Befort, Stephen F. and Budd, John W. (2009) Invisible Hands, Invisible Objectives: Bringing Workplace Law and Public Policy Into Focus, Stanford University Press.
  5. ^ Budd, John W. (2004) Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice, Cornell University Press.
  6. ^ Kaufman, The Global Evolution of Industrial Relations.
  7. ^ Ackers, Peter and Wilkinson, Adrian (2005) “British Industrial Relations Paradigm: A Critical Outline History and Prognosis,” Journal of Industrial Relations.
  8. ^ Ackers, “Reframing Employment Relations.” Kaufman, The Global Evolution of Industrial Relations. Whalen, Charles J. (2008) New Directions in the Study of Work and Employment: Revitalizing Industrial Relations as an Academic Enterprise, Edward Elgar.

Further reading

  • Ackers, Peter; Wilkinson, Adrian (2003). Understanding Work and Employment: Industrial Relations in Transition. Oxford University Press. 
  • Blyton, Paul; Bacon, Nicolas; Fiorito, Jack; Heery, Edmund (2008). Sage Handbook of Industrial Relations. Sage. 
  • Budd, John W. (2004). Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice. Cornell University Press. 
  • Hyman, Richard (1975). Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction. Macmillan. 
  • Kaufman, Bruce E. (2004). Theoretical Perspectives on Work and the Employment Relationship. Industrial Relations Research Association. 
  • Kaufman, Bruce E. (2004). The Global Evolution of Industrial Relations: Events, Ideas, and the IIRA. International Labour Office. 
  • Kelly, John (1998). Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism and Long Waves. Routledge. 
  • Salamon, Michael (2000). Industrial Relations: Theory and Practice. Prentice Hall. 
  • Webb, Sidney; Webb, Beatrice (1897). Industrial Democracy. Longmans, Green, and Co. 
  • Nichols, Theo (1997). The Sociology of Industrial Injury.. London: Mansell Publishing Limited. 
  • Mullins, Laurie J (2005). Management and Organisational Behaviour. FT Prentice Hall. 

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