Industrial Relations Research Paper

Within the scope of this research, we will try to describe the features that characterize “good” industrial relations. Beardwell has drawn a distinction between two approaches to good industrial relations. He sees one as concerned with the reform of industrial relations, manifested in interest in job control, single union agreements, pendulum arbitration, and the like. The second approach is concerned with the new ideology of human resource management, with its focus on individualism and therefore its potential to replace the traditional pluralist system. (Beardwell, 1992)

The typical illustration of the reformist approach is the new Japanese manufacturing site, perhaps Toshiba or Nissan where management appears willing to accept a single union on their own terms. The American high technology firms such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, and DEC represent the stereotype of the second approach. However, as Garrahan and Stewart have argued in the case of Nissan and McLoughlin has shown in the case of high technology companies, the two approaches overlap, implying that the idea of the two perspectives existing Janus-like is too sharply drawn. Recognition of overlap has also been apparent in some of the debates about industrial relations and human resource management (Garrahan and Stewart, 1992). What this implies is that managements’ broad policy choices are not about a reformist industrial relations or human resource management but about options along two dimensions.

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The first dimension is concerned with industrial relations. Following the Beardwell analysis, the type of industrial relations sought by management may range from the unreconstructed pluralism still found in some corners of the public sector, through a reformist type of new industrial relations complete with single union deal and pendulum arbitration to an absence of trade unions. (Kochan, 2001)

The second dimension is concerned with human resource management. Managers must decide how far they wish to embrace it. If they consider the issue strategically, they may opt to pursue a full-utilization model through policies designed to generate employee commitment, flexibility, and quality; and they may choose to do this for all or part of their staff. Alternatively, they may deliberately set out to pursue a strategy of cost-minimization, seeking high flexibility through short-term contracts and a policy of hire and fire. In such contexts, there is no pretence of seeking workforce commitment to the organization.
Considering the policy choices using these two dimensions takes us away from the conventional debates about the new versus the old or industrial relations and trade unions versus human resource management. Instead it opens up a variety of possible arrangements including trade unions operating alongside a set of human resource management initiatives. Alternatively, management may try to abandon any semblance of either traditional or new industrial relations and at the same time avoid any of the mutual commitments implied by human resource management.

Any consideration of this wider set of choices forces us to look at the key contextual influences in the economy and the market place. It also requires a reconsideration of the ideological framework. The contrast between pluralism and unitarism may need to be replaced by notions of coexistence or complementarity.

“The possibility that some managers may choose to avoid both trade unions and human resource management opens up the question of the black hole of non-unionism, for too long neglected by researchers.” (Kochan, 2001) At present we know too little about the policy choices that managers actually make, about what influences them and about their consequences. In our view the debate about human resource management and the new industrial relations has probably gone on long enough and the best way to take the debate forward is to generate empirical data which can inform it.

The kind of research required must be both sufficiently wide-ranging to detect key trends and developments and sufficiently detailed to explore beneath the surface. In seeking to answer the question of whether human resource management is compatible with trade-unionism, we will operationalize the two dimensions described above. Along the dimension concerned with industrial relations policy and the union role we group establishments into four categories according to whether they recognize no union, recognize a single union in the context of a single union deal, recognize a single union but without any special deal, and whether they recognize multiple unions.

On the human resource management dimension, we identify four categories according to whether they have an explicit human resource management strategy and the extent to which they make use of a range of human resource management practices. This provides us with a classification which we have initially applied to non-union establishments but which can equally well be applied to any workplace.

Those with an explicit human resource strategy and a high use of human resource practices we label the Good. They adopt an approach close to the kind of ‘high involvement’ management espoused by Lawler (Kochan, 2001). At the other extreme, those with no human resource strategy and a low adoption of human resource practices we label the Bad. This could be construed as cautious pragmatism, but it is more likely to be poor, ill-thought through management. Those with an explicit strategy but one which results in a low take-up of human resource practices we label the Ugly. By implication, since they claim to have a strategy, they have thought through how they wish to manage their human resources and decided not to adopt a ‘full utilization’ approach.

The presence of a trade union is associated with a greater use of a human resource management strategy and a mission statement, which, in addition, is more likely to refer explicitly to human resource issues. This needs to be qualified by the analysis of types of trade union presence. A strategy and mission statement is particularly likely to exist where there is a single union deal.

Multiple unionism, by contrast, may come into operation in those establishments where a parent company already has a central collective agreement with a number of unions. It follows that the majority of such cases are likely to be British-owned. Examination of the national ownership patterns confirms that this is indeed the case. The UK- and USA-owned establishments where any union is recognized are the least likely to report a single union deal. (Kochan, 2001)

The pattern across the range of human resource management practices also reveals some specific differences and helps to sharpen the distinction between the new industrial relations, reflected in single union deals, and the traditional industrial relations reflected in multi-unionism. Any type of trade union presence is associated with less use of single status and use of performance appraisal and merit pay for all staff. Single union deals on the other hand are associated with a set of practices broadly similar to non-union establishments but with the added advantage of having a more coherent human resource strategy.

These results are strongly supported by Millward’s (1994) analysis of the new industrial relations based on WIRS3. He finds that establishments with single union deals are consistently more likely to have a range of innovative practices, implying once again that they think strategically about single union deals and human resource management issues together. Unions inhibit performance and multi-unionism inhibits it more. However, this conclusion requires some qualification since single union deals have far less impact on performance, compared with non-union establishments.

The similarity between non-union establishments and those with a single union deal brings us back to the question of whether this type of unionism is an empty shell. It does not appear to constrain management. Indeed, it is associated with what managers believe to be greater commitment to the organization among lower level staff and with greater flexibility than even non-union establishments. In contrast, multi-unionism is associated with poorer outcomes on all variables except labor turnover and absenteeism; and on five of the outcomes, the differences with non-union establishments are significant. Thus multi-unionism is associated with poorer performance. This confirms the economic research on the impact of unions.

To summarize, the new trade-unionism, reflected most strongly in single union deals, is compatible with human resource management. There is more of a question mark against multi-unionism. This raises the question of why any company will recognize a trade union at a new establishment. A single union deal has very little impact compared with non-union establishments suggesting that they turn unions into empty shells. Multi-unionism, on the contrary, has a somewhat negative impact.


Beardwell I. ( 1992), “The New Industrial Relations? A Review of the Debate”, Human Resource Management Journal, 2/ 2: 1-7.
Garrahan P., and Stewart P. ( 1992), The Nissan Enigma: Flexibility At Work in the Local Economy (London: Mansell).
Kochan T., Katz H., and McKersie R. (2001), The Transformation of American Industrial Relations ( New York: Basic Books).
Millward N. ( 1994), The New Industrial Relations? (London: PSI).


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