HR Theory Essay

Three-fold distinction between ‘pluralism’,‘unitarism’ and ‘radicalism’ to understand the competing positions; a classification system first applied to industrial relations by Fox (1974 and 1966) and subsequently debated with considerable fervour (e. g. Clegg 1975 and Hyman 1975). A pluralist perspective takes the view that the potential for conflict is inherent in the employment relationship, but that it is manageable and can be contained by an appropriate network of rules and regulations.A unitarist view of employer–employee relations sees them as essentially harmonious, punctuated only by occasions of temporary and illegitimate conflict. Radicals see industrial relations in terms of an enduring structural conflict between employers and those who sell their labour to the employers.

Temporary accommodations to this conflict, according to radicals, do little more than control employees in their exploited position and secure the stability of a system that continues to favour employers.This taxonomy of ideological perspectives is an imprecise device because there is plenty of room for differences within each category and it is often difficult in practice to distinguish at the boundaries between, say, a conservative pluralist and a unitarist or between some pluralists and some radicals. As well, few people are completely consistent in their statements and actions, with the result being that they can be analysed as unitarists in one situation and pluralists in another.Nonetheless, despite these imperfections, the device helps to reveal real differences between the perspectives of rank and file employees, industrial-relations practitioners and scholars alike—differences that deeply affect their diagnoses of industrial-relations ‘problems’ and their prescriptions for remedies. Like the work of most industrial-relations scholars, the ideological perspective adopted in this book is essentially pluralist. A discussion of the analytical tools used in different theoretical approaches focuses attention on the various sets of concepts used to analyse the employment relationship.Again, debates within economics between competing ‘schools of thought’ illustrate how the same broad empirical events and processes can be interpreted differently according to the analytical tools or theoretical PLURALSIM Pluralism is, as Blyton and Turnbull (1998) have observed, far from a homogeneous or unified analytical construct.

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What unites pluralists, however, is the recognition that there is some underlying social structure that has the potential to create sectional groups and interests within organisations and to bring these groups into conflict 13 ach other as they seek to achieve their separate goals. In contrast to the unitarist approach, which admits only one source of legitimate power, pluralism points to the likelihood of diverse interest groups and multiple forms of loyalty and attachment. A pluralist framework of analysis suggests that employees in different organisations could have similar interests; and by creating horizontal links with groups outside the membership of their organisations in the form of trade unions, a loyalty and commitment to leaders other than the management of their own organisations could develop.The main features of pluralism are summarised in Table 1.

1. The British writer Alan Fox believes that it is important for management to recognise that there are other legitimate sources of leadership and focuses of loyalty within an organisation, and that they must share their decision-making authority with these competing interest groups (Fox 1971). Furthermore, he has contended that management should not regard industrial conflict as a pathological deviation from the natural harmony of industry, but it should recognise conflict as inherent in he employment relationship.

Rather than trade unions being seen as introducing conflict into the workplace, they should be viewed as providing an organised and continuous way of expressing the sectional interests that exist. Fox believes that the pluralist framework makes more sense of industrial relations and provides management with a better understanding of the limitations to their power that exist. He sees it as a necessary basis for: ecognising that co-operation is unlikely to be achieved in modern industry through the attempted manipulation of team spirit, high morale and loyalty but needs to be engineered by structural adaptations in work organisations, work roles and work practices and that direct negotiation with work groups is an essential part of this process (Fox 1971, p. 408). Cooperation and trust within organisations, then, is not something that can be assumed.

Rather, cooperation must be created and trust must be earned by management by developing power-sharing and decision-making procedures and equitable policies that accommodate the potential conflicts of interest that occur between employees and management. The pluralist ideological position has provided the theoretical perspective for the great majority of academic work in industrial relations. However, few scholars agree over the precise definitional properties of pluralism, as it has changed over time and between writers, and there have been many debates—some profitable and others less so—about the value of this approach.One of the major concerns, especially voiced by radicals, has centred on an alleged assumption by pluralists of an approximate balance of power between the competing interest groups within organisations or within broader society (Child 1981). Hyman and Fryer (1975) have argued, for example, that rather than there being some symmetry in the distribution of power between management and unions, power has been heavily weighted towards management. They feel that the starting point for any realistic analysis of industrial relations must be the substantial power imbalance between capital and labour.This derives from the fact that the productive system is, in the main, the private property of a small minority of the population. As Fox (1974, p.

274) has observed: From this view, any talk of ‘checks and balances’, however apt for describing subsidiary phenomena, simply confuses our understanding of the primary dynamics which shape and move society—a useful confusion indeed for the major power-holders since it obscures the domination of society by its ruling strata through institutions and assumptions which operate to exclude anything approaching a genuine power balance.A second, and related, criticism of the pluralist perspective is its emphasis on the promotion of rational, efficient and effective conflict management. Fox (1974, p. 282) has suggested that this may be little more than a sophisticated form of managerialism aimed at finding ways of containing conflict within a regulatory framework that promotes and maintains order.Pluralism tends to focus attention on the types of rules, regulations and processes that are likely to contribute to the accommodation of conflict and ensure that disruptive pressures threatening organisations are countered effectively so as to restore and maintain the equilibrium of the system. Its emphasis, some have argued, is on social stability, compromise and granting concessions. Hyman (1975), a strong critic of this approach, has found this unsatisfactory:To define industrial relations in terms of rules is to emphasise the relatively defined, stable and regular aspects of employer–worker and management–union relationships; by the same token it is to play down the significance of conflicts of control in the labour market and over the labour process as manifestations of a fundamental and continuous antagonism of interest (p.

34). More recently, MacDonald (2003) has argued that the pluralist assumptions underlying much of the Australian research on enterprise bargaining have resulted in a failure to properly understand the processes and outcomes of workplace reform.In particular, he identifies the overriding focus on the ‘labour problem’, the preoccupation with institutions rather than workers and the conservative managerialist ideology underlying this research as being at fault.

These critics, however, often overstate their case and both real-world events and the development of theory since the 1970s have produced pluralist analyses that avoid the naiveties of earlier writers. In fact, contemporary analysts like Blyton and Turnbull (1998) and Edwards (1995b) have accommodated many of the radical critiques while retaining a largely pluralist perspective.Few modern pluralists, for example, assert an equal balance of power between employers and employees.

At the same time, changing economic circumstances and the instability of many industrial-relations institutions over the last two decades have amply demonstrated the weakness of any theoretical approach that assumes stability and equilibrium. UNITARIST Some of the competing approaches to the study of the employment relationship are based on a more conservative ideological position, which is called unitarism’, and they draw on different intellectual traditions for their analytical tools. In fact, the history of management thought is replete with examples of such approaches. ‘Scientific management’ or ‘Taylorism’, associated with the writings of Fredrick Taylor, focused on the role of management in reorganising the production system and designing payment systems that gave employees economic incentives for cooperating with management.The human relations school, associated with the names of Mayo and his colleagues, drew on psychological analysis to stress the importance of work groups in achieving employee satisfaction and organisational efficiency. The neohuman relations school, usually associated with McGregor, Likert and Herzberg, again used psychological concepts to emphasise the individual (or egoistic) needs of employees and the type of work tasks and work organisations that can satisfy these needs (see Deery et al. 001, pp. 9–12).

It is, however, the human resource management (HRM) school of thought that is used in the following pages to illustrate the differences between the unitarist and pluralist ideological perspectives. Human resource management is usually regarded as having emerged in the early 1980s through the work of scholars at Harvard University (Boxall and Dowling 1990), although Strauss argues that the term has a much longer history (Strauss 2001).During the late 1980s and 1990s, it caught the imagination of management scholars and practitioners alike and it found advocates and critics in Britain, Australia and its native place of origin, the US. In many ways the new HRM replicated the unitarist perspective and the psychological/organisational analytical tools of earlier management writers, especially the human relations school and the neo-human relations school. It was considered that its novelty, however, lay in its emphasis on strategy and the ‘strategic fit’ between an organisation’s humanresource strategy and its broader business strategies.

The distinguishing feature that characterises the unitarist ideological perspective towards the study of the employment relationship is the assumption that each work organisation is an integrated entity with a common purpose and a shared goal (see Table 1. 4). The employment relationship is based on mutual cooperation and a harmony of interest between employers and employees. There is no fundamental conflict between those who own capital and those who supply their labour; by definition, all are part of the same team.Where industrial conflict exists it is seen as temporary or the product of aberrant behaviour—something that has been induced by troublemakers, poor management or bad communications. Trade unions are usually regarded as unwelcome intruders and their presence upsets the unified and cooperative structure that exists within the organisation. Furthermore, unions are judged to be in competition with management for the loyalty of employees.

Unitarists support strong leadership by management in order to achieve the commitment of employees to the job and to the organisation itself. The unitarist perspective is predominantly managerially oriented.Managements’ adoption of this view has much to do with the fact that it legitimates their authority. They are the organisational leaders and they represent a single source of authority and a single focus of loyalty. In the absence of aberrant events, employees can be expected to accept their authority. While there is considerable diversity within HRM and some commentators claim that HRM can be consistent with pluralism (e.

g. Boxall and Dowling 1990), most scholars consider HRM to be fundamentally unitarist in its ideological position. It sees employers and employees as sharing similar goals and interests.As a way of managing people, HRM emphasises the goals of organisational commitment and policy integration with the needs of business (Legge 1989).

Storey (1995) has described HRM as an ‘approach to employment management which seeks to achieve competitive advantage through the strategic deployment of a highly committed and capable workforce’ (p. 5). Because of this, Purcell (1992) believes that: HRM is the visual embodiment of the unitarist frame of reference both in the sense of the legitimation of managerial authority and in the imagery of the firm as a team with committed employees working with managers for the benefit of the firm (p. ). In this way, the employment relationship rests on a mutuality of interests, and the organisation reflects integrated and fundamentally harmonious goals.

A major criticism of the unitarist ideological perspective on industrial relations, and the policy prescriptions that flow from it, is that it takes a narrow view of the nature of industrial conflict. It avoids fundamental questions such as conflict over the distribution of the proceeds of business, security f employment, the status of labour as a factor of production, and the issues of power and control in industrial decision making. None of this is to say that the determinates of conflict favoured by unitarists— such as poor management, poor communications or trouble-makers—cannot contribute to conflict in workplaces. Rather, conflict is far too prevalent in society and in organisations to be explained solely in these terms. A more realistic approach must acknowledge deeper structural sources of conflict. RADICALISMA third alternative approach to the study of the employment relationship—radicalism— is based on an ideological perspective located at the other end of the political spectrum and it draws on intellectual traditions associated with Marxism. Scholars of this mould have been researching and writing about economic and social affairs since at least the nineteenth century and, like their pluralist and unitarist counterparts, they form a broad church in which disagreement and debate have often been as common as consensus.Nonetheless, they share some essential assumptions such as a belief in the deep inequality of the employment relationship, the inevitability of conflict and the impossibility of resolving conflict and achieving equality without fundamental changes in the underlying social structure.

It is the following analysis of the labour process that is used to illustrate the radical approach and its particular application to the study of the employment relationship.For many decades before the 1970s, Marxist research and writings focused on broad social, economic and political analysis of capitalism without exploring the implications of their analysis for the arena of the workplace. Braverman’s book Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974) changed all that by rediscovering several neglected chapters of Marx’s Capital—Volume 1, written almost a century earlier, and passionately demonstrating the value of Marx’s ideas to the study of the modern production process.Braverman stimulated many new studies and much debate; the debates not only resurrected Marxism, but they also deeply affected the development of pluralist analysis of the employment relationship There is one element of the pluralist perspective that is shared by those who adopt a radical perspective on industrial relations. This is the recognition of fundamental and inherent conflicts of interest between workers and employers at the workplace.

But the pluralists assert that the conflict of interest is not total, that the parties share at least some common goals and that mutual gain can be achieved through negotiation and compromise.In contrast, radical writers see worker–management relations as only one aspect of class conflict in which the antagonism of interests between capital and labour cannot be resolved without changing the underlying social structures. The workplace is one arena in which class conflict finds its expression: between the property-owning class and the working class ‘there exists a radical conflict of interest, which underlies everything that occurs in industrial relations’ (Hyman 1975, p. 23). Conflict, then, is not just an industrial phenomenon.It is a reflection of class conflict that permeates the whole of society. The conflict that takes place at the enterprise level between those who buy labour and those who sell it is seen as a permanent feature of capitalism and one that is produced by the concentration of economic, social and political power in the hands of those who own and control productive resources. This broader analysis means that few radicals are prepared to acknowledge industrial relations as a separate field of study; rather, they see ‘industrial relations as an element in the totality of social relations of production’ (Hyman 1975, p.

x). To say, as the pluralists do, that industrial conflict is inherent in the structure of employment relations is to stop short of a full explanation. Radicals argue that this evades the question of the extent to which an antagonism of interest is generated at the societal level and is embedded in the mode of production within which the employment relationship occurs. In fact, Hyman (1989a) considers the term ‘industrial relations’ to be both ‘vacuous’ and ‘incoherent’.

He claims that: the processes of “job regulation” can be adequately comprehended only as part of an analysis, on the one hand of the dynamics of production and accumulation, on the other of the broader pattern of social and political relations (p. 124). Radicals are also critical of the pluralists’ preoccupation with the regulation of conflict.

They feel that by concentrating on how conflict is contained and controlled, the pluralists divert attention from the more fundamental issue of why conflict is generated. In this context, Hyman (1975, p. 2) believes that ‘the question whether the existing structure of ownership and control in industry is an inevitable source of conflict is dismissed as external to the study of industrial relations’. Radicals believe that undue emphasis is placed on how employers, trade unions and other institutions cope with such conflict, and on identifying processes that can be implemented to maintain industrial stability. Radical writers have paid greater attention to the notion of power than have the pluralists.

This is not surprising, given the pluralists’ emphasis on conflict resolution and procedural reform (Martin 1981).Radicals see the imbalance of power both within society and at the workplace as central to the nature of industrial relations. At the workplace, those who own the means of production have power superiority over those who sell their labour for wages. This is reflected in a substantial inequality in the distribution of rewards. The weakness of labour in the marketplace is said to be reinforced by the creation of social norms, values and beliefs that tend to sustain the existing distribution of power in industry and inhibit the development of workingclass political consciousness (Martin 1981).As discussed in more detail in the following pages, this inequality in the marketplace is paralleled by the greater capacity of the owners and managers of capital to control the labour process.

Marxists also do not share the pluralist view of the role of the state as a guardian of the ‘public interest’, dispensing favours to the weak and curbing the excesses of the strong. For them, the state plays an integral role in protecting the interests of the power-holders and maintaining the major structural features of society that are crucial for the power, status and rewards of the owners and controllers of resources.The state’s interest lies in developing institutionalised mechanisms for controlling conflict and achieving social stability. In this way, government intervention to protect the ‘national interest’ is said to be closely bound up with sustaining the health and strength of private enterprise. Where economic stability is viewed as an important precondition for a society’s material wellbeing, it is claimed that governments of all political persuasions have an interest in maintaining the ‘confidence of industry’ and encouraging the accumulation of profit and the generation of investment.

Table 1. 5 summarises the main features of the radical perspective. The radical approach has been criticised on a number of grounds. Some writers have argued that the Marxist perspective is overly preoccupied with the conflictual aspects of manager–worker relations. As a consequence, the role of trust in work relations and the dynamics of accommodation and cooperation between employers and employees have been seriously neglected (Edwards 1986).Others contend that, while the Marxist focus on the polarised class struggle may have been a valid interpretation of nineteenth-century capitalism, it does not explain the complex economic, political and social conflicts of welfare-state or monopoly capitalism in the late twentieth century (Farnham and Pimlott 1979). It has also been observed that capital is comprised of a number of heterogeneous and often competing elements, which belie its monolithic character.

Dabscheck (1983) has argued, for example, that a concession gained from the state by one fraction of capital may impose additional costs and burdens on, or be at the expense of, other fractions of capital. Such may be the case with tariff protection, which provides aid to some organisations and businesses while at the same time increasing the costs of inputs to other owners and controllers of capital. Yet others have criticised Marxists for their views on the role of the state.

Martin (1981, pp. 115–16) has argued that the Marxist analysis underestimates the independence of the state.He believes that the legislative action of Labour Governments is, in many cases, designed more to cement political alliances with the industrial wing of the labour movement than to serve the interests of capit CONCLUSION However, this does not mean that the approaches cannot, and have not, influenced each other. From a pluralist perspective, for example, unitarism is generally considered to be an unsatisfactory approach to the study of industrial relations, but Edwards (1995b) has argued that it serves a useful purpose by highlighting the fact that employer–employee relations are not permanently and completely conflictual.Employees and managers may share common interests on specific issues, such as the survival of the business, and employers may seek to harness employees’ loyalty and cooperation, rather than merely their compliance, through a variety of mechanisms (e. g.

employee involvement and profit-sharing schemes). This is not to suggest, as many unitarists do, that conflict at work is a pathological deviation from a ‘norm’ of social harmony and order. Rather, social relationships in the workplace are punctuated by both conflict and cooperation. An appreciation of this dual dynamic is, thus, essential to an adequate understanding of industrial relations.The emergence and popularity of HRM during the 1980s, with its substantive focus on the relationship between management and individual employees, also encouraged industrial relations as a field of study to broaden beyond the collectivist focus that was sometimes assumed in the post-World War II period.

The pluralist and radical perspectives feature some similarities. In fact, over two decades ago, Clegg (1979) observed that there was much in common between the pluralist and radical accounts, particularly in the emphasis on conflict in industrial relations.Edwards (1986) has noted that the two approaches share the view that the labour contract is an open-ended arrangement and that the work-effort bargain is subject to processes of negotiation and contestation. In fact, as previously demonstrated, Braverman and later labour process writers had a profound impact on industrial-relations writers during the 1980s, when critics were alleging a preoccupation in industrial-relations research with trade unions and collective bargaining to the neglect of management and its control strategies at work.

These historical influences aside, the pluralist, unitarist and radical perspectives are essentially competitors in the study of the employment relationship and any attempt at synthesis is misguided. Because the differences between the approaches can often be reduced to value judgments and because each approach emphasises different aspects of the employment relationship, they are incompatible. The mission of students is not to expect integration, but rather to respect difference, and to understand that each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses.


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