Changing management priorities in industrial relations

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What do recent attempts to adopt ‘partnership’ approaches and practices suggest about the changing management priorities in industrial relations? Introduction In order to answer this question effectively I intend to split it into four distinct sections. In the first section I will outline what the term ‘partnership approaches’ actually means. In order to do this I will discuss the differences between ‘social partnership’ and ‘partnership at work’ and outline why partnership at work has been adopted as the dominant partnership approach in Britain.

The following sections will form the body of the essay. Within these sections I intend to discuss whether the adoption of workplace partnership initiatives has been successful or unsuccessful, thus indicating to us whether management priorities are changing or not. This will be done mainly via the use of relevant authors and case studies. However my argument will mainly be based around the fact that, although in some cases partnership approaches are being adopted successfully, there has in fact only been a limited adoption of such practices, and in many cases management have little intention of changing their priorities.

After discussing whether or not partnership approaches appear to be succeeding or failing, I hope in the final section to be able to draw some conclusions as to whether the adoption of such approaches are having any impact upon management priorities, and briefly suggest what the future is likely to hold. Outlining Partnership approaches It is important for us to first define the meaning and significance of partnership approaches in Britain. ‘Social partnership’ is an imprecise term and in Britain carries a number of meanings and refers to a range of union activities (Ackers and Payne, 1998; Guest and Peccei, 2001  Tailby and Winchester, 2000).

Indeed there is much debate over the exact meaning of partnership in Britain, Guest and Peccei (2001) confirm this argument, they argue that there is, in fact, no agreed definition or conceptualization of partnership in either academic or policy literature. Different writers tend to adopt different definitions and to emphasize potentially different elements and dimensions of partnership. It is prudent at this early stage that we come to some sort of conclusion as to what partnership approach has become dominant in Britain.

In Britain to date, almost all discussion has been focused on company and workplace employment relations, thus ‘partnership at work’ – rather than the broader conception of ‘social partnership’ has attracted most interest (Tailby and Winchester, 2000). Partnership can have different meanings at different levels the term ‘social partnership’ has become more associated with the European level. At this level it can refer to union involvement in the European Social Dialogue and the negotiation of framework agreements, such as those on parental leave and part time work, which have been adopted as directives by the European Union (Heery, 2002). However Britain differs from many other European countries in that the main approach adopted has been partnership at work / company level where it can refer to the negotiation of distinctive partnership agreements between unions and management, which are intended to promote a new and more cooperative set of relations within firms (Heery, 2002).

For the purposes of this essay it is prudent therefore to concentrate on partnership at work rather than the broader concept of social partnership, it is also prudent therefore to look at the differing reasons why this partnership at work approach was adopted in Britain however an in depth discussion of these reasons is not required. In recent years, the idea of partnership at work has received considerable support in the UK from government, employers and trade unions (Guest and Peccei, 2001). There are varying reasons why the partnership at work approach has been adopted in Britain.

One of the main reasons is the support that it has received from the Labour government who through its Employment Relations Act (1999), its white paper Fairness at Work (1998) and its Partnership Fund has shown its concrete support for partnership at work. Further to this the TUC has promoted partnership processes in its Partners for Progress: New Unionism in the workplace (TUC 1999) and the CBI (the employer’s confederation) has also shown support for partnership by endorsing this paper. However, authors such as Guest and Peccei (2001) present a different view, as to why partnership at work was adopted.

They argue that management attempts to by-pass unions by involving employees directly have met limited success in terms of enhanced worker commitment, creating ‘dualistic’ union and non-union structures, resulting in some employers courting union support to make employee interaction work. Further to this they suggest that British business has had to adjust to the changing political and ideological mood as the government adopts EU social policy informed by social partnership.

We have established that workplace partnership agreements have become dominant in Britain; however we have yet to establish what such agreements actually entail for business and employees, it is important for us to do this if we are to discuss how management priorities have changed. Perhaps the best definition comes from the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) the leading UK pressure group for the adoption of partnership. They argue that ‘the four key blocks of the partnership principle are (a) security and flexibility, (b) commitment to the success of the enterprise, (c) openness and transparency, (d) representative and employee voice’ (Guest and Peccei, 2000).

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