Approaches To IR

The scenario of Industrial Relations(IR) is perceived differently by different people. For some, Industrial Relations is related to class conflict, others perceive it in terms of mutual co-operation and still others understand it in terms of competing interests of various groups. HR managers are expected to understand these varying approaches because they provide the theoretical underpinnings for much of the role of HRM.

The three popular approaches to Industrial Relations are Unitary approach, pluralistic approach, and Marxist approach.

Unitary Approach

Under unitary approach, Industrial Relations is grounded in mutual co-operation, individual treatment, team-work and shared goals. Work place conflict is seen as a temporary aberration, resulting from poor management, from employees who do not mix well with the organization’s culture. Unions co-operate with the management and the management’s right to manage is accepted because there is no ‘we-they’ feeling. The underlying assumption is that everyone benefits when the focus is on common interest and promotion of harmony. Conflict in the form of strikes is not only regarded as unnecessary but destructive.

Advocates of the unitary approach emphasize on a reactive Industrial Relations strategy. They seek direct negotiations with employees. Participation of government, tribunals and unions are not sought or are seen as being necessary for achieving harmonious employee relations.

The unitary approach is being criticized as a tool for seducing employees away from unionism and socialism. It is also criticized as manipulative and exploitative.

Pluralistic Approach

The pluralistic approach totally departs from the unitary approach. The pluralistic approach perceives:

1. Organizations as coalitions of competing interests, where the management’s role is to mediate amongst the different interest groups.

2. Trade unions as legitimate representatives of employee interests.

3. Stability in Industrial Relations as the product of concessions and compromises between management and unions

Legitimacy of the management’s authority is not automatically accepted. Conflict between the management and workers is understood as inevitable and, in fact, is viewed as conducive for innovation and growth. Employees join unions to protect their interests and influence decision-making by the management.

Unions thus balance the power between the management and employees. In the pluralistic approach, therefore, a strong union is not only desirable but necessary. Similarly, society’s interests are protected by state intervention through legislation and industrial tribunals which provide orderly process for regulation and resolution of conflict.

The theories on pluralism were evolved in the mid-sixties and early seventies when England witnessed a resurgence of industrial conflicts. However, the recent theories of pluralism emanated from British scholars, and in particular from Flanders and Fox. According to pluralists, industrial conflict is inevitable and it needs to be contained within the social mechanism of collective bargaining, conciliation and arbitration.

Marxist Approach

Marxists, like the pluralists, regard conflict between employers and employees as inevitable. However, pluralists believe that the conflict is inevitable in all organizations. Marxists see it as a product of the capitalist society.

Trade unions are seen both as labour reaction to exploitation by capital, as well as a weapon to bring about a revolutionary social change. Concerns with wage-related disputes are secondary. Trade unions focus on improving the position of workers within the capitalist system and not to overthrow. For the Marxists, all strikes are political.

Besides, Marxists regard state intervention via legislation and the creation of industrial tribunals as supporting management’s interest rather than ensuring a balance between the competing groups. This view is in contrast to the belief of the pluralists who argue that state intervention is necessary to protect the overall interest of society.

To Marxists, the pluralist approach is supportive of capitalism, the unitary approach is anathema. Consequently, enterprise bargaining, employee participation, co-operative work culture, and the like which help usher in cordial Industrial Relations are not acceptable to Marxists. Such initiatives are regarded as nothing more than sophisticated management techniques designed to reinforce management control and the continuation of the capitalist system.

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