Towards Social Partnership - or Co-Operative Industrial Relations?

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Defining Labour-Management Partnerships

Recent developments in the field of industrial relations have focused a great deal of attention on the advent of partnership agreements between trade unions and employing organisations. Opinions differ as to the cause of such agreements, some arguing that they are born of the unions' latest strategy for survival and need for relevance, whilst others see them as a genuine social advance for working people and a vital contribution to the competitiveness of business organisations. Also, at the macro-level, it is possible to see partnership agreements as making a significant contribution to the economic performance of a country or region, or to view them as an alternative to legislative reform, substituting voluntarism for statutory rights of consultation and company regulation.

At the level of the enterprise, a partnership agreement can be described as one in which management and trade unions) agree to work together for mutual gain, and to create a climate of co-operative relations. They are characterised by management being expected to enhance job security and/or employability in return for employees accepting flexible work practices and increasing productivity. In some cases, there has been a joint union/management approach, involving the re-writing or extension of existing written recognition and procedural agreements, and changing important aspects of collective bargaining and/or terms and conditions of employment. These would usually include the move to single-table bargaining and the introduction of single status for all employees, with harmonisation of rewards schemes, and equality policies. Oft-quoted examples in the United Kingdom (UK) include Rover, Blue Circle, Hyder Services, and in the United States (US), Saturn, and NUMMI (see IDS, 1998 and IRS. 1998).

However, there is no set pattern, and where such written agreements have emerged the importance of context is acknowledged, in that they are based specifically on a problemsolving approach within a plant or organisation.

Neither is there agreement that trade union presence or recognition is necessary, and the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) maintains that "partnership has more to do with an approach to the relationship between employers and employees, individually and in groups, than it has to do with trade unions as such" (IPD, 1998). The Institute of Directors (IOD) has taken a strongly unitarist stance towards partnerships, and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has warned of a "possibly damaging build-up of trade union influence, hidden behind the new buzzword partnership" (CBI 1999). Nonetheless, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) view is that "partnerships between employers and trade unions can make a real contribution to company success" (Monks, 1998), and the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) has produced evidence from case studies and surveys to show a direct link between partnership approaches and enhanced organisational performance (IPA 1997, 1998). The "New Realism", identified by David Guest as one of four possible policy options for organisations on human resource management (HRM) and industrial relations (IR) matters, seeks to integrate them with high priority being given by organisations to both, and cites the examples of Rover and Nissan in the UK (Guest, 1995).

But some scepticism also exists on the ideological left about the reasons for labour-management partnerships, it being argued that that they have their origins in the extension of HRM practices, and are inherently unitarist. In this respect, some would say that union weakness is the reason behind unions seeking partnership agreements - as, as it were, a self-preservation measure. Kelly draws attention to this: "Since it is difficult, if not impossible to achieve a partnership with a party that would prefer that you didn't exist, the growth of employer hostility is a major objection" (Kelly, 1996). …