Emerging Patterns of Industrial Relations in Britain


There is a general view that the nature of employment is changing and together with it
new trends of employment relations have emerged. In this paper I will try and briefly
outline the emerging trends of Industrial Relation in one of the most well known
countries of the world and also where a lot of studies and research have been done in the
field of Industrial Relations and this is Great Britain.

Because Industrial Relation is such a big topic due to its linkage also to other subjects
like Human Resources Management, Organizational Behavior, Marxism, Sociology,
Economics and so on and so forth, I will therefore try and limit myself only at looking at
Industrial Relation in these two countries from the angle of the three major stakeholders
namely the Unions of Employees, the Employers and the State. Other changes may have
evolved but I will only try and keep myself to the bounds of these three important areas.

The British Isles.

Britain was the cradle of industrialization with the Industrial Revolution taking place long
before “adult electoral Suffrage”.

Workers were seen as “hands” and as an expendable resource where more times
employers took advantage of them with minimum obligatory towards their welfare. The
scenario at that time witnessed the law and reality of “master and servant deeply
embedded”. Because most industries were owned by the state, laws made were hostile
towards workers and this actually gave rise to the struggle for employee recognition later
to become the “Industrial Revolution” in Britain.

1.      Unions

The earliest union in Britain were formed by skilled craftsman and they endured a lot to
become recognized. Many of the unions that exist today still have their roots to that era.
Widespread unionization followed in the middle of the 19th century mostly for
semiskilled and unskilled manual workers and later on became very prominent in Britain
in the early 20th Century. After World War II few “white collar” workers joined.
British unions at that time had been classified according to skills but this later became
blurred as unions merged. They were seen more as either “closed or open” according to
the recruiting policies.

Although 1384 unions were recorded in 1920, by 2002 there were only 199. The level
and density of union membership fluctuated since World War II. Bargain and Price
(1983) identified three phases of employee and union developments in Britain since then.
The first one was a twenty year period from 1948 – 1968. The second phase in the 1970s
where membership grew markedly and the beginning of the third phase began in 1979
conceded with the election of the conservative power. During that period thre was an
accelerated decline in manufacturing employment. This decline was aggravated with the
onset of the economic recession in the early 1980’s.

Union density declined continuously doing the 1980’s and 1990’s. 1979 – 1997 union
membership fell by well over 40% (6.2m to 7.15m). Structural and labour composition
started to change. There was more decline in manual work, manufacturing, decrease in
public sector employment, more part time work and self employment, rise in service
sector employment which were all important factors in the change. It was only in 1997
following the election of the labour government that the decline in membership came to a
stop with small fluctuations over the years from then on.

In Britain there is only one main Union Confederation, the Trade Union Congress. In
year 2000, 75 unions representing 85% of British Unions members were with the TUC.

In contrast with other countries the TUC has no direct role in collective bargaining. It’s
primary role was to lobby government. After World War II its political influence grew
and participated in many tripartite bodies and quasi government agencies role that peaked
under the Labour Government from 1974 – 1979. It was also responsible in regulating
inter-union relations.   After 1979 its members reduces and during the Conservative
Government after 1979 its exclusion from the corridors of powers reduced its
effectiveness.   This major turn around induced debutes about its policy. In the 1990’s
there was an emphasis on partnership i.e. “building constructive partnership with good
employers. In 1994 it relaunch its campaign approach encompassing networking of
organizations.   It also promote more effective recruitment strategies and set up an
organization academy to train new generation of union organizers.

The return of Labour in 1997 presaged a more fruitful role for TUC as a social partner
with government though relationship less much close there previous labour government.
The unions in fact were instrumental in the establishment of the labour party in 1906 seen
as a necessary complement for the instrial activities of the Unions – which meant new
legislation required to establish Union rights.
Since mid 1980’s the Labour Party leadership has increasingly distance the party from
Unions and their voting power very much reduced at its policy making conferences.

2.     Employer and Employment Practices

The confederacy of British Industry (1965) is the highest employer body in Britain. Like
TUC plays no role in collective bargaining.       The association of employers (Institute of
Directors played an important part in shaping the British voluntarist system of industrial
relation. They act as representations of employers in industry, reaching agreement with
unions over recognition, dispute procedures and setting terms and conditions across
member companies. They defended against union campaigns and to some extend took
wages out of competition among British employers competition. There were ups and
downs and up until now they have moved to the periphery of Industrial Relations offering
legal, advisory, training and other services mostly seen as Shadow of their former selves.

The steep rise in unemployment combined with the international competition in product
market and reductions in unionism has enhanced employer power.

Most management therefore sought to more flexible approaches in dealing with
employees, some of which include direct employee communication, team working and
other technique associated with H.R.M. and the introduction of performance related
elements into pay. In certain sectors employers directly bargain with staff association in
their work conditions. As a result redundancy is wide spread self employment, part time,
limited term and casual employment contracts have expanded in a relatively deregulated
labour market.

Because of the global market of policy of British firms have been influence by the
success of their international neighbours.        Almost one third of work places have a
personal specialist. Line managers have also very much involved in human resource
activities and this have greatly threaten the existence of specialist consultancy firms.
This has occurred through out servicing and shared service operations. It is also clear that
there has been significant growth in the incidence of the so called new management
practices aimed at engendering employee commitment and promoting high performance.
This has led to employees working in formally designated terms. However, a lot is still
to be desired whether these policies are strategically based or more pragmatic.

3.     The State

The state (including national and local government and their various agencies plays an
important role in employment relations both directly and indirectly in Britain. During
much of the 19th Century law was hostile to unionism and when regulations were
modified towards the end of the century the state did not directly provide a favourable
conditions for employees or union rights but opted to provide systems for granting
immunities for various fro their various actions against civil laws and criminal activities.

Only in 1906 that the process was completed through the Trade Dispute Act which
provided the Union Law until the 1980’s. This was generally accepted by governments
of different complexion giving rise to “Voluntarism”. As a consequence the intervention
of the law, lawyers and the state was minimized however, being varied only by the
imposition of “Compulsory Arbitration” after the two world wars.

The three principal features of Voluntarism were:

       i.     Non legally binding collective agreement.
       ii.    Voluntary union recognition by employers.
       iii.   A light voluntary arrangement of state provided dispute resolutions
              facilities with no government power to order suspension of industrial
              action or improve cooling off period.

The poor economic performance in the 1960’s made people argue that one of the main
course was the industrial relation system in Britain with restrictive working practices
making industries uncompetitive.    As a result governments resorted to legislations.
Accordingly 1960’s industrial relation reform was high on the political agenda. The
conservative Industrial Relations Act 1971 sought to legislate for rapid and fundamental
reform once and for all.      Between 1979 to 1997 the Conservative Government
successfully adopted a more gradualist approach and they enacted important new laws at
two yearly intervals.   That finally limited the ability of unions to organize lawful
industrial action. If narrow union unities from legal action by employers and others,
outlawed secondary industrial action and restrained picketing. Since 1984 industrial
action had to be preceded by a secret ballot. A union cannot lawfully discipline a
member who refuses to support industrial action. Legislation also prohibited closed
shops and also there were other regulations by government that intervene in internal
union governance. All these were aimed at Unions responding to wishes of their

A further characteristics of the British System was the importance of minimum labour
standard apart from health and safety fields. The main exception was in relation to low
pay post 1997 Labour government have further strengthened stationery employment
rights, such as better unfair dismissal compensation, parental leave, and other family
friend employment rights. There has been a remarkable shift from voluntarism towards
juridification in the regulation of employment relation in Britain. So statutory regulation
supersedes all long established voluntarist regime.

It is quite evident that the nature of employment has dramatically changed in Great
Britain where Industrial Relation has evolved in the past century. Two broad aspects of
change have been witnessed. The first is the growth of what are variously termed
atypical, non standard flexible jobs. These encompass such elements as part time work,
temporary employment including agency employment and a growth in self employment,
including “pseudo” or dependent self employment.

The second is the rise of networked , boundary less organizations in which highly skilled
autonomous professional individuals with occupational portfolio careers rather than
organizational careers, link together with others to work on a non hierarchical project

As a result we have seen the weakening of Union of employees and the increase of labour
insecurity whilst on the other hand power has been weighted more heavily towards
management or with the employers. The state the other main stakeholder of the tripartite
should play the major role of a power broker whose responsibility is to see that both
party interested are protected through proper legislation.


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