Employment Relationship with Reference to the Unitarist, Pluralist and Marxist Perspective
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The aim of this assay is to discuss the statement—‘Conflict is inherent within the employment relationship’ with reference to the Unitarist, Pluralist and Marxist perspective. Firstly, I will give the definitions of employment relations, industrial conflict the three main conflict frames of reference in employment relations. Then I will explain the conflict in the three perspectives individually. Lastly, I will make a simple comparison about the three perspectives.
Dunlop states that the industrial relations system is seen to be ‘comprised of certain actors, certain contexts and ideology which bind the industrial relations system together and a body of rules created to govern the actors at the workplace (Blyton Turnbull, 2004, P27). And employment relations is defined as a rule-making process which is concerned with different levels of analysis, with the employment relationship and with substantive and procedural issues both collectively and individually and within union and non-union contexts (Rose, 2004, P8).
As the new empirical lines of enquiry and important theoretical developments, using terms such as employee relations rather than industrial relations because ‘Employee relations’ encompasses broader fields’ focuses on the interaction between employee and employer (Blyton and Peter Turnbull,2004). Generally, there are four main parts that ER is concerned with, which are employment, unemployment and self-employment relationships; the interests of individuals, groups, organizations or the state and how they represent their interests; how individuals manage and promotes their interests within an organization; the management of conflict (Rose, 2004).
Industrial conflict proves itself in strikes and other forms of collective actions which are regarded not only as reflecting pressures within the organization but also and maybe more importantly as stemming from the unequal division society between those who have only their labor to sell (Rose, 2004). So the industrial conflict is unavoidable and continuous, and the functions of trade unions are to enhance their collective industrial power by reducing competition between individual employees; provide a focus for the expression and protection of the interests of the working classes; and being part of the overall political process for achieving fundamental changes in the nature of economic and social systems (Rose, 2004, P29).
Karl Marx famously described three levels of conflict of interests between employers and employees: the higher the wages (and benefits) the lower the profit left to the employer; conflict relating to decisions concerning the work itself; conflict regarding the division of labour – the employer sometimes wants to divide the work into repetitive, uninteresting and unchallenging tasks, while the worker usually prefers a more varied and fulfilling job (Davidov, 2007).
Frames of reference are ‘general theory’ approaches to ER and they are extremely valuable in explaining the actions, statements and behaviours of employers and trade unionists (Rasmussen & Lamm, 2002).The conflict frames of reference attempts to explain why conflict exists in the workplace, what status should be attached to conflict and how conflicts should be addressed by employers, unions & employees (Rasmussen & Lamm, 2002).
There are three main conflict frames of reference in employment relations:The unitarist perspective /UnitarismThe pluralist perspective /PluralismThe radical or Marxist perspective(Wergin, 2004, p4)The unitary approach sees organizations as harmonious and integrated in such a way that all employees share the organizational goals and work as members of one team.
(Gennard and Judge, 2002, P208)In unitary perspective, the organization is assumed to be an integrated group of people with a simple authority or loyalty structure, the management and staffs work for a common goal and each member in it has the same values, interests and objectives (UAMP, 2006). Here, conflict is not normal and unnatural, and it is thought to be the result of a lack of fit between the employer and the employee. As the expression of employees’ dissatisfaction and differences with employers, conflict is regarded as bad and irrational for the organization and should be kept down through some forcible ways. Conflict can arise from employees’ misunderstanding of the direction of the organisation or the poor communication between the staff and the management, enabling employees to substitute alternative agendas instead of the organisation’s agenda (Bray, Deery, Walsh and Waring, 2005). Moreover, conflicts can arise from the poor management that caused by the management’s failure to identify and meet employees’ basic needs.
From this perspective, trade union is perceived not necessary and the role of it is creating conflict, and it is seen an unwelcome intrusion into the organization from outside competing with management for the loyalty of employees (Rose, 2004). Trade unions exist either as the result of wickedness or perverseness of individual employees, or because of a failure of management to anticipate and incorporate worker needs and concerns (Bray, Deery, Walsh and Waring, 2005).
Fox argues that the importance of the unitary perspective is declining and has been superseded by the pluralist superseded by the pluralist perspective (Rose, 2004).
The pluralist approach recognizes that different groups exist within an organization and that conflict can, and does, exist between employer and employees. (Gennard and Judge, 2002, P208)The pluralist perspective is regarded as being more appropriate with developments in contemporary society (Rose, 2004). In the traditional pluralist thought, it is assumed that each interest group has the equal power and competes with each other, and the competition can lead to conflict that cannot be easily avoided and is thought to be normal.In the 20th century, some changes have given to the pluralist perspective, such as a separation of political and industrial conflict and an acceptance and institutionalization of conflict in both fields (Rose, 2004).
In pluralist perspective, the organization is made up of different interest groups, each group has the right to exist and is legal to the extent, and the pluralist organization has many sources of loyalty and authority in groups, trade unions and other sectional interests (Rose, 2004). As each group pursues its own sectional aims, interests and leadership, there are often conflict and competition among these aims and interests and leadership, so conflict is acceptable and recognised as regional in the employment relationship. However, conflict can be resolved through institutions, rules and procedures and it can also be minimized if the management discusses with the employees before it makes the final decision (Wergin, 2004).
The pluralist perspective accepts that Trade unions are legal interest groups which have a right to exist representing groups of employees to disagree with management and influence decisions of management. Also, the trade unions are recognized to be a legitimate source of employees’ to the organizations rather than their own management. While it is accepted that management runs the company, it is expected that managers discuss their decisions with employees, and take into account their interests (Wergin, 2004).
Academics adopting a pluralist position typically argue that systems of union recognition and collective bargaining have an important role to play in expressing and alleviating workplace conflict (Boxall & John Purcell, 2003)Collective bargaining is a pluralist concept in that it is encouraged by those who share a pluralist perspective and who argue that collective bargaining not only provides a mechanism whereby potentially destructive conflict can be dealt with, but also contributes an economic method of dealing with the workforce (Rose, 2004, P290).
Marxist perspective on ER: Industrial and employee relations can only be understood as part of a broader analysis of (capitalist) society, in contrast to any implicit or explicit assumptions about a balance of power in industry, Marxists emphasize the asymmetry of power between employer and employee (Blyton and Turnbull 2004, as cited in Arjan, 2008, P.8), which means that Marxism regards power and class in the centre of its analysis, rather than rules and regulations.
In Marxist perspective, the cause of conflict is the different classes’ different interests, and the capitalists are in better position to pursue their interests because of an asymmetry of power which is based on ownership (Wergin, 2004). So the class conflict comes from the capitalism, and Marxism argues that the underlying cause of conflict is the class system or the ownership ways of production.
The Marxist perspective is concerned with structure and nature of society and ignores the different interests in improvement from managers and workers (Gennard and Judge, 2002). Marxists argue that employees are the sellers of their labour and the typical employee needs to be employed more than the typical employer needs to hire a particular labourer (Keizer, 2008). Management’s main aim is profit, so control over work is enforced by management towards that aim. In this perspective, conflict is normal and inevitable and it cannot be resolved without the abolition of class system.
Viewed from this perspective, Trade unionism is the mechanism used by employees to counteract the power of the management, and to restrain the power of employer; the state is concerned with maintaining the interests of the capitalist or the employer over the interests of the employee (Bray, Deery, Walsh and Waring, 2005).
An organization’s attitude to trade unions could have a significant impact on strategy of employee relations. The values and preferences of the organization’s dominant management decision-maker have on strategy formulation will in part been determined by whether the organization adopts a unitary or pluralist approach to its employee relations (Gennard and Judge, 2002).
Alan Fox(1974) makes an important distinction between ‘unitarists’ and ‘pluralists’: managers in unitarist perspective do not accept that there is any legal conflict of interest and in fact they have nothing to suggest on motivational problems apart from the simplistic advice to ‘improve communications’, while pluralists accept that there are vital conflicts of interest in the workplace that include the trade-off between the firm’s profit and the income of the employee, and the tension between work decisions & conditions controlled by the employee and the employer (Boxall & John Purcell, 2003).
While pluralism is basically the opposite view of unitarism, the Marxist view shares some basic assumptions with pluralism such as Difference of interests and Inevitability of conflict, however, Marxists put power and class at the centre of their analysis, rather than rules & regulations (Wergin, 2004). The Marxist perspective is broader in scope than either unitary or the pluralist perspective because it emphasises the importance of collective action and organization explained in terms of mobilisation theory (Rose, 2004).
Conclusively, terms such as employee relations rather than industrial relations are used because ‘Employee relations’ encompasses broader fields’ focuses more on the interaction between employee and employer. The industrial conflict is unavoidable and continuous. There are three main conflict frames of reference in employment relations: The unitarist perspective /Unitarism; The pluralist perspective /Pluralism; The radical or Marxist perspective. In unitary perspective conflict is not normal and unnatural, and it is thought to be the result of a lack of fit between the employer and the employee.
In pluralist perspective conflict is accepted and recognised as endemic in the employment relationship. In Marxist perspective conflict is normal and inevitable and it cannot be resolved without the abolition of. The Marxist perspective is broader in scope than either unitary or the pluralist perspective because it emphasises the importance of collective action and organization explained in terms of mobilisation theory. (1845)
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