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University of Alberta

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Yonatan Reshef
Faculty of Business
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta

What kind of an industrial relations system (IRS) fits the Taylorist HRM system? What kind of employee-employer relationship would evolve out of this HRM system? What philosophy would unions adopt to best deal with management operating under this HRM paradigm? What would be the content of bargaining agendas? What is the role of the State in industrial relations under this HRM paradigm?

The Adversarial Industrial Relations System

Embedded, in its formative years, in fear, intimidation and animosity the North American industrial relations system has been governed by an adversarial approach toward the employee-employer relations. One reason was that unions were perceived as monopolies that were conspiring to restrain trade. This approach, according to Barbash (1981, p. 1), comprises three principles: First, "[a] feeling on the part of management that unions and collective bargaining are at best necessary evils in modern industrial society"; second, basic disagreement between the parties over the scope and substance of collective bargaining; and third, "[a] conviction on the part of labor leadership that the union's main job is to challenge and protest management actions". In addition, within the adversarial system, unions' most deep-seated beliefs are that they should take care only of their members' immediate economic interests, not challenge the capitalist system, remain outside company decision making processes, and avoid government. As a result, unions' main focus is the job site and a limited collective bargaining agenda -- wages, conditions of work, and meticulously defined job regulations. Importantly, HRM issues, such as job design and the organization of work, remain management prerogatives. In their efforts to achieve these targets, unions have relied on an economic action orientation, that is on acting within the labor market.

Economic orientation or strategy denotes efforts by labor to realize its goals through direct pressure on employers. At the union level, this involves strikes, collective bargaining, and occasional involvement in management policy making. At the worker level, economic actions also include individual acts such as turnover, absenteeism, and sabotage. A major assumption of the economic model is that the economic and political spheres are, and should remain, separate. Despite this, however, workers may seek to advance their interests by lobbying the state on specific issues. But in contrast, for example, with the European unions' political action, these actions are limited in scope and clearly subordinate to labor's dominant actions -- collective bargaining and strikes.

Adherents to the economic paradigm are content to act within the "system" and use the political means at their disposal merely to advance their members' interests. The ends the intellectual leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), including Commons, supported were entirely consistent with an economic paradigm. Commons wrote, for example, that the state must "trim off the destructive edges" (cited in Kerr, IRRA, 1954: 10) of the mass organizations without becoming a major player in the IR system. More recently, Edwards and Podgursky (1986: 19-22) suggested that labor relations in the U.S. have been governed by a set of shared understandings they labeled "labor accord."

The Labor Accord

In North America, unions use established industrial relations institutions, namely grievance procedures, strikes, third-party intervention, and collective bargaining to advance their organizational and member interests. These institutions are a part of a broader arrangement, referred to as "labor accord," that solidified in the decade following the end of World War II (Edwards and Podgursky, 1986). Consisting of institutional, economic, legal, and political relationships, the accord constitutes the "rules of the game" in industrial relations.  

The labor-management discord and accommodation are played out within the confines of these rules. As discussed below, the role of the state in this model is limited.  What union and business leaders want from the state is freedom to work satisfactory arrangements. As long as the parties abide by the accord, therefore, the economic and political spheres should remain separate. Occasionally, however, workers may seek to advance their interests through political lobbying. But these actions have been limited in scope and clearly subordinate to organized labor's dominant actions -- collective bargaining and strikes. 

The Role of the State in IR

From time to time, labor leaders seek increased government involvement in the economy and in the IR system. The role being advocated for government, however, is purely economic, the government is being asked merely to help restore a crippled bargaining system to its former level of effectiveness.

Because actions are aimed mainly at employers, the state usually becomes involved in the roles of employer or impartial conflict mediator. According to the economic model the state does not, and should not, play an active role in industrial relations. That is, employers and unions rely on their own sanctioning capabilities rather than on government assistance -- an approach known as voluntarism. Only when the "invisible hand" of the market is incapable of upholding the balance of forces among interest groups should the central controls of the state be invoked.

Industrial Conflicts

The objectives of unions pursuing this action model are far more limited than for those pursuing a political orientation. Instead of seeking benefits for society as a whole, unions adopting the economic model primarily seek benefits for their own members exclusively (Murray & Reshef, AMR, 1987).

Within the traditional, adversarial industrial relations system, industrial conflicts are viewed as inevitable but acceptable when governed by a fundamental societal consensus concerning the "rules-of-the-game." Industrial conflicts, then, can be classified as "normal" and "abnormal." Normal conflicts, explains Barbash (BJIR, 1980: 88), "are the conflicts essential to the maintenance of the system and without which the system is largely incapable of functioning." Normal conflicts arise from pressure tactics directed at legitimate targets, that is, those targets which have been specified on the agenda of negotiations between employers and worker representatives. If actions are directed at targets unrelated to immediate working conditions, the conflict is deemed aberrant since it is viewed as either irrelevant or threatening to the stability of the system.

To sum, the key assumptions underlying unions' activity within the adversarial industrial relations system include (Murray & Reshef, AMR, 1987):



  1. Workers have little interest in broad social issues, they expect their union to improve their working conditions only and, with it, their own well-being.
  2. Unions should rely on their powers and not expect government to reach out a helping hand.
  3. Labor shares no common interest with management, thus,
  4. Unions should stay outside management decision making processes, thus,
  5. Collective bargaining is the unions' foremost mechanism for the advancement of worker interests.
  6. Labor should challenge management actions, but should neither question the legitimacy of the capitalist system nor try to undermine its tenets.


Barbash, Jack. 1980. "Collective Bargaining and the Theory of Conflict." British Journal of Industrial Relations, 18: 82-90.

Barbash, Jack. 1981. "Values in Industrial Relations: The Case of the Adversary Principle." Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Industrial Relations Research Associations. Madison: IRRA: 1-7.

Edwards, Richard and Michael Podgursky. 1986. "The Unraveling Accord: American Unions in Crisis." In, Richard Edwards and Michael Podgursky (Eds.), Unions in Crisis and Beyond: Perspectives From Six Countries. Dover, MA.: Auburn House: 14-60.

Kerr, C. 1954. "Industrial Relations and the Liberal Pluralist." Proceedings of the 7th Annual Meeting of the Industrial Relations Research Association, Madison: IRRA: 2-16.

Murray, A.I. and Y. Reshef. 1988. "American Manufacturing Unions' Stasis: A Paradigmatic Perspective." Academy of Management Review, 13: 639-652.


 Job Control Unionism

The following is adapted from Harry C. Katz. 1985. Shifting Gears. Cambridge, MA.: MIT (38-47)

Katz differentiates between business unionism and job control unionism.  Business unionism conveys a union's political platform and refers to labor's general acceptance of the capitalist system and rejection of a more radical and broader political platform. Job control unionism refers to the particular form of union participation in decision making and the scope of that participation. Although the North American unions' job control focus is strongly supported by and consistent with their business unionist philosophy, it is possible for a union to follow business unionism and not be job control oriented. 

Job control unionism has produced a unique industrial relations system that is characterized by the three basic elements. First, the labor relations system relies heavily on formal, written, and legalistic procedures. Traditional collective bargaining agreements are voluminous and specify employment terms and conditions in fine detail. The operation of the grievance procedure with its formal four steps in which higher levels of management and the union are called in to settle a dispute and quasi-judicial opinions are issued by third-party arbitrators contributes to the legalistic and formal nature of the system.

A second aspect of the job control orientation is the large role played by the detailed job classification system, which includes specification of the exact requirements of each job. These detailed job classifications are the basic ingredients of the complicated seniority bumping rights, shift preferences, and other job rights regulated by the national and local contractual agreements. An important feature of the job classification system is the fact that wages are tied to each classification, not to the worker.

A third defining attribute of the job control system is the limited involvement of workers in production or business decision making. Clearly through collective bargaining, workers and their unions significantly affect employment conditions. Yet the workers have little, if any, involvement in ongoing production decisions. The system is one where management pays for the workers' hands but is not interested in use of the workers' minds.

Why Job Control Unionism?

Management. For management the job control focus served the important function of containing the union's and worker's penetration of issues deemed to be managerial prerogatives. Containment of the union was a central objective for management in the postwar period. The labor relations system that emerged largely resolved this concern by limiting the bargaining agenda. Furthermore job control unionism meshed well with management's adherence to scientific management, which professed the advantages of supervisory authority and a clear definition of workers' responsibilities.

For many years, this system has served well corporate interests. During negotiations over wages adherence to the wage rules led the parties away from any discussion of either company profits or prices. For example, why should the parties discuss corporate profits since whether profits were drifting up or down had little impact on either wage changes or the negotiated fringe benefit package? Nor was there much reason for negotiators to debate broad corporate concerns such as investment planning, parts outsourcing, and problems associated with the introduction of new technologies.

Workers. At the local level the job control focus similarly discouraged worker involvement in business and production decision making. The resolution of disagreements through the grievance procedure and the reliance on the detailed local contract as a guide to worker responsibilities left little room for alternative forms of worker participation in decision making.

Unions. For the unions, notwithstanding their limited bargaining agenda, this system did produce satisfactory outcomes. Job control unionism helped to bring about a production system that generated high rates of growth in workers' real compensation and long-run growth in employment.

The limited bounds of collective bargaining also were consistent with the economic paradigm of the unions. This paradigm had helped to create in labor an acceptance of private property and a general acceptance of the capitalist system. Labor's limited involvement in business decision making was highly compatible with this framework and its voluntarist traditions.

Adversarial Labor Relation

Labor's business unionism and broad acceptance of the capitalist system did not preclude the emergence of adversarial relations on the shop floor. The central element of this adversarial pattern is the low trust with which labor and management view each other. From labor's side a lack of trust in management in part springs from the ever-present fear that management will use any available opportunity to remove the union from the plant. On management's side the low trust seems to arise from the fear that labor will utilize its representation rights and bargaining power to press unwarranted and damaging demands. Nonetheless, in the presence of low-trust relations, it makes sense for both sides to seek protection in the legalistic and formal adjudication of disputes and work rules. By regulating work conditions through legalistic documents and focusing their fights over narrow interpretations of the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, both sides were protected from the possibility that more free-for-all bargaining would jeopardize their security. In that way job control unionism was very compatible with business and adversarial unionism.


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