Exploring the Relationship between the State and Employee Relations
Employee relations encompass a wide scope of workplace environment aspects so that employees are protected and provided for. Essentially, employee relations involve all aspects of dealing with people within the workplace. This can include job regulation, hiring, discipline, but also managing employee relations so that the organization flows smoothly with competent employees (Bray et al., 2005). IR, as stemming from a pluralist approach, deems that state involvement only restricts the natural power struggle in employee relations that allows the changing needs of employees to be best represented. On the other hand, a unitarist approach can help secure protection from exploitation for developing nations or countries trying to recover from economic hardships. Thus, it is ultimately appropriate to take on a blended approach regarding state involvement; one which is flexible enough to work with both approaches when necessary as it adapts to the economic environment.
The discipline does make the clear assumption that there are inherit conflicts within the work environment. Power struggles are present within the work place. The true nature and impact of conflict varies, depending on the theoretical approach to understanding industrial relations. First, there is a pluralist approach, which is the base for an IR approach to deciding whether or not the State should be involved in employee relations. From this perspective, conflict is seen as inescapable and helps shape how conflicting parties gain and loose power within the work environment (Bray et al., 2005).
Thus, from a pluralist perspective, power is not held by one group, but is rather fought for and distributed among several bargaining groups as they deal with the constant conflict in the work environment (Cradden, 2011). Thus, "an organization has more than one legitimate source of authority, notably the trade unions which represent staff interests in many organizations" (McCourt, 2003, p 8). There are shifts in power that are constantly redistributing strength to various parties involved. Therefore, the employees are represented through "collective bargaining institutions and trade unions" that continually adjust to the needs of the employees in their representation of them (Ackers & Wilkinson, 2005, p 445). This creates a flexible system that is constantly adapting and changing to meet the needs of the employees. However, there is the potential opportunity for management to gain the upper hand in the bulk of these power struggles.
Within this approach, there is little state involvement. It is minimized as much as possible, as "the state is regarded as an impartial entity, whose primary function is to protect the public interest" (Bray et al., 2005). Thus, from a pluralist perspective, the state should stay out of the natural power conflicts that occur between parties in the workplace and let them work it out themselves. Therefore, the state remains of minimal influence on employee relations in favor of trade unions using their own bargaining power to represent employees. This IR approach is much more appropriate in a world of globalization. Here, the research suggests that "governments are increasingly less able to control the flow of capitol, information and technology across the border" (de Silva, 2013, p 2). Ultimately, with this in mind, the state is not even powerful enough to really make management decisions in employee relations on an international level.
On the other hand, unitarism has a much different perspective. This makes up the foundation for HRM. From this perspective, there is a mutual benefit between all parties in the workplace that have a common purpose. This asserts the notion that conflict only arises when there is a deficient system, meaning when there is a lack of proper communication or ineffective management (Bray et al., 2005). At its core, unitarism constructs the HRM model of business organization (McCourt, 2003). Strong management is then thought to be needed in order to lead all parties under a common good. The Human Resource Management perspective "emphasizes strategy and planning rather than problem-solving and mediation, so that employee cooperation is delivered by programmes of corporate culture, remuneration packaging, team building and management development for core employees, while peripheral employees are kept at arms" (Torrington et al., 2005, p 61). There is a higher demand for a more centralized method of management and control.
Therefore, a unitarism approach does place more emphasis on state involvement. As seen in its emphasis on strong leadership from a management perspective, HRM also associates a strong state role as an augmentation of successful strategies. Thus, in such a model, the state plays more of an increased role. Unitarism is especially useful in the context of developing nations. Here, there is not a strong enough infrastructure present to trust that unions or other employee representation would be strong enough to work in the true benefit of the employees. This leaves employees vulnerable to exploitation by the powers that would be otherwise engaging in more constructive conflict in an IR structure, utilizing the elements of pluralism. Essentially, "due to the state's major role in the economy as a whole, but given the close links between political parties and unions in many countries, it is not surprising that the state should be active in employee relations" (McCourt, 2003, p 341). Within developing nations, this provides the added strength needed to ensure that employees' rights are protected and that they are not being exploited by the unions and organizations that falsely claim they represent the interest of employees. This serves as a way for the government to help influence a growth of unions in a positive direction, where trade unions are more beneficial to employees in regards to representation in employee relation issues.
Ultimately, the best structure for designing intervention is a blended perspective. Despite the clear differences in the two perspectives, they do share elements that can be combined to help construct the most appropriate level of State intervention. Here, the research suggests that "techniques developed in a unitary setting may be relevant in some pluralist settings and vice versa" (McCourt, 2003, p 319). This is especially true in a stronger economy in a bout of economic hardship. For example, the United States, as it struggles with regaining its former strength in the pre-recession era. This allows for the trade unions to utilize power struggles as way to ensure the best handling of employee relations, but gaps in state involvement could be increased in a period where government spending and supervision is necessary to get the economy back on track (Geare et al., 2006). Working with HRM principles, the state can increase its involvement to better strategize and structure for economic recovery,
Pluralism works especially well in economies that becoming rapidly more interdependent on each other, where individual governments cannot fully exert their power over all aspects of employee relations in an international context. As the economy continues to become more globalized in all regions of the world, pluralist approaches to employee relations provide the flexibility to adapt to these changes. The state cannot work to enforce its will on business conducted outside of its borders, and thus a pluralist perspective decreases its role so that other, more flexible parties can represent employees on a more international spectrum. Yet, governments can still be involved in a limited context inside their own borders, which is why a blended approach may be more powerful than an IR approach alone. A mixture of the two allows trade unions to exist and work on bargaining for employee rights, without becoming too dependent on the state, which is increasingly limited in a more globlized world.
Unitarianism can help secure protection from abuse and work to better secure appropriate employee representation (Cradden, 2011). However, this approach often limits itself by neglecting the potential causes of conflict until they erupt. Taking a more proactive approach at understanding conflict will help…