Industrial Relations at the Millennium: Beyond Employment?

Article excerpt

"from a materialist perspective ... the task ... is not to re-interpret but to transcend the very idea of industrial relations."(1)

AS THE NEW MILLENNIUM approaches, Industrial Relations (or IR(2)), qua field of study, is barely a century old. Conventionally dated from the publication of the Webbs' Industrial Democracy in 1897 in the UK and the work of John R. Commons in the United States in the early years of the 20th century,(3) the field of IR began to take root in universities during the inter-war years and then grew rapidly in the context of the postwar settlement and the ensuing 30-year economic boom. When, from the mid-1970s onwards, that boom petered out and the settlement began to unravel, IR too began to slide into a crisis, one from which it has yet to emerge. Indeed, for reasons to be explored below, IR in its present form is unlikely to survive for another one hundred years, and it may even be extinct much sooner than that.

In the first part of this essay, I take a brief backward glance at how IR emerged out of the general concern with the "labour question" to form a distinct field of study and research. In the second part, I take stock of the crisis of relevance that the field has been experiencing in the 1980s and 1990s and examine how that crisis is provoking a transformation of IR into "Employment Relations." In the third part of the essay, I assess this strategy of renewal and find it wanting in a number of respects. In its place, I argue that IR should be recast as the study of work relations.

From the Labour Question to Industrial Relations

"industrial relations are in the nature of relations between human beings, arising in connection with the parties to, the terms of, and the working-out of, an agreement, expressed or implied, between Capital, Labor, Management, and the Community ... to unite in the work of production."(4)

Although the objects it studies are found around the world, IR as an institutionally distinct field of teaching and research was largely an Anglo-American invention. In most continental European countries, for example, research into the various aspects of industrial relations was long conducted by social scientists belonging to disciplines like law, sociology, and business administration, with little contact between them.(5) Thus, although there are nearly 40 national associations affiliated to the International Industrial Relations Association (IRAA),(6) and while there have been efforts recently in some countries to carve out a distinct identity for those interested in IR,(7) the field remains very much an Anglo-American phenomenon.

In the Anglo-American countries, IR originated as a response to two problems(8): the intellectual dissatisfaction with the way neo-classical economics treated wage determination, trade unionism, collective bargaining, and social legislation; and the "labour problem" itself, that is, the stirrings of working-class action and the threat it was thought to pose, particularly in its radical forms, to the established social order. In particular, IR was born of a desire to create a middle ground between the conservative implications of neo-classical economics and the radicalism of Marxism on the intellectual terrain, and between repression and revolution on the politico-industrial terrain. Like all species of reformism, then, IR has always faced the delicate task of reconciling what Richard Hyman has called its two faces -- the problem of social welfare and the exigencies of social control.(9)

Although the roots of IR can be traced back to the wider concerns over the labour question, the field itself only began to take shape when employers and the state were faced with problems of industrial and political unrest during and immediately after World War I. Indeed, the first official use of the term "industrial relations" is usually cited as the US Congress' 1914 Commission on Industrial Relations -- a term that was quickly imported into Canada when the federal government appointed its own Royal Commission on Industrial Relations in 1919. …