Faculty of Business
University of Alberta
T6G 2R6 CANADA
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
The Adversarial Industrial Relations System
Embedded, in its formative years, in fear, intimidation and animosity the
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
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.
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):
NORTH AMERICAN UNIONS' PARADIGM
- 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.
- Unions should rely on their powers and not expect government to reach out a helping
- Labor shares no common interest with management, thus,
- Unions should stay outside management decision making processes, thus,
- Collective bargaining is the unions' foremost mechanism for the advancement of worker
- Labor should challenge management actions, but should neither question the legitimacy of
the capitalist system nor try to undermine its tenets.
1980. "Collective Bargaining and the Theory of
Journal of Industrial Relations, 18: 82-90.
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
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:
The following is
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.
unionism refers to the particular form of union participation in
decision making and the scope of that participation. Although the North American
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.