From Socialist Voice, April 2010

Is your boss a Marxist?

Is your boss a unitarist,1,2 a pluralist,1 or a Marxist1? These are the three main analytical ways of viewing industrial relations. How your boss interprets industrial relations in your work-place has a major effect on how they behave and how they expect you to behave in turn.
        The unitarist-type management views the work-place as a team or community.3 In other words, your employer makes statements such as “We are all part of the same team,” etc. Conflict is seen by your boss as both unnatural and unnecessary.4 The management try to convince you (and themselves) that “team” spirit and management authority co-exist for the benefit of all.5 Conflict, therefore, is blamed on personality clashes, poor communications, bad attitude, or the work of agitators. Individuals who are “difficult” or have a political “axe to grind” need to be disciplined, or even dismissed.4 Therefore, if conflict cannot be suppressed, the management believes it should be dealt with by their authority: management coercion.
        The unitarist employer rejects trade unions as a historical carry-over, brought into existence during a time of unenlightened management practices.6 “Custom and practice” or union rules are irritating to this type of management.7 Indeed this unitarist ideology seeks to portray trade unions as a sectional greed with little grasp of economics, the “national interests,” or even where their own interests lie.8 This is also the dominant ideology in much of the media and in conservative and right-wing political parties.9
        Even if a unitarist employer is eventually forced to recognise a trade union for collective bargaining, they will try to limit the scope of negotiations to pay and other employment conditions that are at best reviewed annually, biennially, or triennially. The unitarist employer will resist employee representatives having any say in the day-to-day assignment and performance of work tasks etc.9 in the ever-changing work-place.
        Pluralism, on the other hand, accepts that trade unions have the right to challenge the management’s “right to manage.”10 History has demonstrated that greater stability is achieved by collective bargaining than by outlawing trade unions.11 Enlightened managers with a pluralist approach recognise that conflict exists in the employment relationship over the “wage bargain,” the “effort bargain” (be it physical, intellectual, or emotional), the “imbalance of power in the work-place and labour market,” and the “commodity status of labour.”12 In the wage bargain the more wages a worker receives the lower the employer’s profit, and vice versa. The conflict over effort is how much open-ended effort a worker must increasingly perform in return for a fixed wage. The imbalance of power causes conflict, in that the employer can generally do without any one worker, whereas the worker’s livelihood depends on their continued employment.
        Finally, workers are not commodities, in that they have human needs (physical and emotional) that will change throughout their working lives and indeed working day, unlike a machine that can be unplugged.
        These potential and actual conflicts need to be managed by the different sources of authority and influence within the work-place and society. Therefore, pluralism views trade unions and collective bargaining as a necessary balance to management authority if conflict is to be properly managed for the benefit of all. Pluralist managements accordingly believe they “can only regain control by sharing it.”12 However, it is not pluralism but unitarism that “in various guises is back on the employers’ agenda.”13
        The Marxist approach to industrial relations accepts that conflict exists but that at present there is little balance between organised labour and capital, especially in an era of globalisation.14 When there is a huge difference in power between different groups in society, including the work-place, the group with the greater power rarely has to use it. This is because excessive power regularly transforms itself into a legitimate authority in the thinking of those it seeks to control. Therefore workers often come to believe that there is no alternative to the way their world is. The status quo becomes legitimate, and workers come to accept that “what is” means “what must be.”
        Marxism disagrees with the pluralist analysis that collective bargaining levels the playing-field between management and unions. Marxism accepts the need for trade unions and is obviously supportive of the trade union struggle but recognises that unions conventionally challenge the existing structures of society only at the margins.15 If and when an agreement is reached, the management still commands; workers are still obliged to obey.16 Otherwise those in power, if seriously challenged, would deploy their full power resources and “would destroy at once the illusion of a power balance.”14
        However, the Marxist view of industrial relations sees capitalism not as a natural phenomenon, like gravity, but merely as a way society is at present organised; and society—unlike gravity—can be changed.
        Critics of Marxism say that “it’s fine in theory but not in practice.” But these are two sides of the same coin. Theory is nothing more than the realignment of thought with reality, and practice is nothing more than the realignment of reality with thought. To leave such realignments to others means it is their practices and ideas—i.e. their political interests—that will shape your life.
        What way does your boss expect you to participate and think about industrial relations and politics?

AssumptionCommon interests and valuesDifferent interests and valuesInequalities in society (wealth, power, risk)
Role of unionsExternal inter­ference
Historical anachron­ism
Accepted only in econ­omic relations (if forced)
Legitimate voice of workers
Can be a positive influ­ence in regu­lation of conflict
Workers’ natural res­ponse to capital­ism
Potential source of class-consciousness
Potential source of politi­cal mobili­sation
Role of managementSingle source of authority and loyaltyTo recognise (formal and informal) sub-groups that compete for authority and loyaltyThe capitalists (or their agents) are capitalism per­sonified
Resolution of conflictManagement authorityCompromise and agreementChange society

        1. Patrick Gunnigle, Gerard McMah bgcolor="#ffffaa"on, and Gerard Fitzgerald, Industrial Relations in Ireland: Theory and Practice, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1995; Joseph Wallace, Patrick Gunnigle, and Gerard McMahon, Industrial Relations in Ireland, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2004; Alan Fox, Beyond Contract: Work, Power and Trust Relations, London: Faber and Faber, 1974; Richard Hyman, Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction, London: Macmillan Press, 1975.
        2. Paul Mooney, Union-Free: Creating a Committed and Productive Workforce, Dublin: Liffey Press, 2005.
        3. David Farnham and John Pimlott, Understanding Industrial Relations, London: Cassell, 1995.
        4. Howard F. Gospel and Gill Palmer, British Industrial Relations, London: Routledge, 1993.
        5. Alan Fox, Industrial Sociology and Industrial Relations (Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations Research Papers, 3), London: HMSO, 1966, p. 12.
        6. Alan Fox, “Industrial relations: A social critique of pluralist ideology,” in John Child (ed.), Man and Organization, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973.
        7. Howard F. Gospel and Gill Palmer, British Industrial Relations, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 186.
        8. Howard F. Gospel and Gill Palmer, British Industrial Relations, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 190.
        9. Mike Salamon, Industrial Relations: Theory and Practice, London: Prentice-Hall, 1998
        10. Hugh A. Clegg, “Pluralism in industrial relations,” British Journal of Industrial Relations, November 1975, p. 311.
        11. Daryl D’Art and Thomas Turner, “Independent collective representation: Providing effectiveness, fairness, and democracy in the employment relationship,” Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, vol. 15, no. 4 (December 2003).
        12. Allan Flanders, “Collective bargaining: Prescriptions for change,” in Management and Unions: The Theory and Reform of Industrial Relations, London: Faber and Faber, 1970, p. 172
        13. William K. Roche, “Industrialisation and the development of industrial relations,” in Thomas V. Murphy and William K. Roche (eds.), Irish Industrial Relations in Practice, Dublin: Oak Tree Press, 1997.
        14. John Kelly, Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism and Long Waves, London: Routledge, 1998, p. 134.
        15. Alan Fox, Beyond Contract: Work, Power and Trust Relations, London: Faber and Faber, 1974.
        16. Richard Hyman, Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction, London: Macmillan Press, 1975.

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