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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.

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Introduction

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. 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. ...read more.

Middle

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. 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. 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. ...read more.

Conclusion

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. ...read more.

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