Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism, and Long Waves

By John Kelly | Go to book overview

2

THE FIELD OF INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS

In the present chapter I indicate what seem to be the central intellectual problems in contemporary industrial relations. The specification has a threefold purpose. First, and by contrast with some of the HRM literature, it allows us to construct a set of research priorities that do not align the field of industrial relations with the economic and political priorities of employers and the state. Second, it constitutes a benchmark against which we can review the progress of the field of industrial relations in recent decades. Any review of a field of inquiry can deploy purely ‘internal’ criteria, e.g. are its concepts well-defined? Is there a significant body of theory? Is there a well-established stock of empirical knowledge? But it is equally legitimate to construct a set of intellectual problems or puzzles and use progress towards their solution as an evaluative criterion. Finally, the same problems that are used as benchmarks in the evaluation of existing approaches can also be used in the construction and evaluation of alternative approaches.

According to Blyton and Turnbull (1994) the subject matter of industrial relations is ‘the creation of an economic surplus, the co-existence of conflict and cooperation, the indeterminate nature of the exchange relationship, and the asymmetry of power’ (1994:31).

A focus on interests and power, conflict and cooperation in the employment relationship allows us to identify four central and enduring problems in the field. First, how do workers come to define their interests in collective or individual terms? This is a central problem for several reasons. There is such a wide and diverse range of employee interests that can be pursued through the employment relationship, e.g. job security, higher wages, training, equal opportunities and career progression, that we need to find some way of categorizing and conceptualizing these interests if we are to explain their variation. Whereas employers are necessarily and primarily concerned with profitability, because of market competition, there is no corresponding mechanism amongst workers that can assign equivalent priority to any one of their many interests (Offe and Wiesenthal 1985:179). Since workers occupy a subordinate position in the employment relationship, their collective definitions of interest are subject to repeated challenges by employers as they try to redefine and realign worker interests with corporate goals. In the context of the post-1979 period, these attempts have given rise to the frequently

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Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism, and Long Waves
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - The Field of Industrial Relations 4
  • 3 - Mobilization Theory 24
  • 4 - Mobilization and Industrial Relations 39
  • 5 - Olsonian Theory and Collective Action 66
  • 6 - Long Waves in Industrial Relations 83
  • 7 - Postmodernism and the End of the Labour Movement 108
  • 8 - Conclusions 126
  • Notes 133
  • Bibliography 143
  • Name Index 168
  • Subject Index 173
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