From strikes to teamwork tiffs

The Harmonisation of Employment Conditions in Britain - Rethinking Industrial Relations
July 2, 1999

Industrial relations as an academic discipline in British and North American universities probably attained its greatest public reputation in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, when Thatcher and Reagan pressed the delete key on corporatist government, the title slid with an increasing rapidity beneath the once-despised nomenclature of human resource management on many campuses. A former emphasis on juridico-political procedural forms and processes gave place to a language of consensus and design containing an implication of undisputed managerial control. Teamwork, empowerment, and total quality management became central concepts in the teaching of the new subject.

Alice Russell's account of the harmonisation of conditions of employment between so-called manual and non-manual staff, goes back to the 1950s in seeking antecedents for present models. She examines the introduction of single-status conditions of employment within companies located in Britain. Separate chapters are devoted to British-owned firms, to the initiatives of the more pioneering US-owned plants, and to more recently established Japanese plants. Also discussed are the effects of deregulation, decentralisation and devolution within corporate structures as well as the impacts of technology and pay structures - initiatives coming mainly from the employers.

John Kelly is much more ambitious in his aim. He attempts to shift what he sees as the foci of the scholarly study of industrial relations on institutionalised form and utilitarian effectiveness to an analysis of the conditions contributing to the mobilisation of collective protest in the workplace. The process is triggered by employer actions: "they must attribute the perceived injustice to the employer, and they must be willing to engage in some form of collective organisation and activity against the employer".

Kelly sees the probability of such acts as greatest during particular historical eras. These occur at turning points in long waves of development in capitalist societies - so-called Kondratieff cycles. Such spontaneous movements can take a variety of forms but are ultimately countered by employer resistance and state repression.

Both books are lucidly written and might well form the basis for considered debate. However, in making the case for what he sees as a new and more dynamic approach to his subject, Kelly explores a wider variety of theoretical perspectives. Yet, the conceptual architecture of mobilisation theory appears so reminiscent of the broader framework of Neil Smelser's Theory of Collective Behaviour (1962) that its omission from the citations comes as a surprise.

Russell, rightly, mentions the role of the British government in accrediting unions during two world wars, but omits mention of the destructive influence of the grievance procedure imposed by employers on the engineering sectors.

The extent to which Russell provides a direct answer to her initial quest is not easily extracted from her case study material. This appears wholly derived from secondary sources with no indication of primary data on the changes being described. Nor is it arranged in a way that would enable easy comparison across the variables denoted in chapter headings or other potential influences. Causes of change are specified as "the feminisation and unionisation of non-manual employees", together with an employer recognition of the need to train and retain a core labour force with skills to match their investment in new technology and flexibility across the tasks created. Kelly's interpretation of events would not demur from this opinion.

It is in relation to the wider implications of work-related changes for social structure that Russell becomes most radical. "Diversity is now characteristic of both core and peripheral sectors. Appraisal systems, performance-related pay progression, and opportunities for career development and advancement for manual workers permit a degree of fluidity in the social structure of the workplace, which is in stark contrast to the rigid class lines of old occupational hierarchies."

In the context of the growth in size and centralisation in employing organisations, most institutional theorists predicate a need for "voice" or (union) representation on an increasingly remote decision-making process. For Russell, as for most post-modernists, this was a brief mid-century phenomenon associated with Fordist modes of management. It is to be contrasted with current post-Fordist modes of devolving operational responsibilities to "autonomous teams" and to self-monitoring in task-management.

The evidence, however, for the achievement of such changes is slim. Kelly's penultimate chapter challenges the stylised "fact" that underlies such postmodernist assertions. He points to an "uncanny resemblance" to previous attempts to introduce new forms of workplace control in the 1930s. Unfortunately, his Marxian spectacles prevent a more thorough consideration of the effects of relative deprivation upon people whose performances are being judged, not only against their own beliefs, but against sector or corporately constructed league tables. In spite of the end of "old occupational hierarchies" announced by Russell, claims to accredit professional qualifications have never been higher, nor demand from East Asian aspirants more insistent.

Old-fashioned liberals might, perhaps, comfort themselves with the knowledge that, just as Fordism was an unaccomplishable brave new world, so post-Fordist management contains all of the same internal tensions present when one human being attempts to predict and to control the actions of another.

Ray Loveridge is research fellow, Business School, University of Oxford.

The Harmonisation of Employment Conditions in Britain

Author - Alice Russell
ISBN - 0 333 71714 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 215

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