Pluralist perspective of employment relations

Question: Carefully define the pluralist perspective of employment relations and show how it differs from other frames of reference. What are the limits of the pluralist acceptance of different stakeholder interests at work. When, within the pluralist perspective is conflict acceptable?

The topic of industrial relations generally deals with the relationships encountered by the workforce in their working lives and can equally be contributed to and studied by economists, lawyers, sociologists, and psychologists, to name but a few. The capacity of the topic spans from the individual in relation to the organisation through to the shop floor, all the way to national and international bodies. Approaches used to define the subject matter of Industrial relations are: Industrial-based definitions, social psychology-based definitions, class-based definitions, human resource management definitions and employment relations. Industrial relations are an ever growing topic and will be continually studied by scholars to further gain in-depth knowledge to natural behaviours of the modern workplace, as advantages of a harmonious working environment is considered the holy grail of globalisation. Although there is a vast array of conceptual approaches to industrial relations, in this essay I will analyse the differences with the frames of reference most commonly known as unitarism, pluralism, and marxism. Before which I will carefully discuss in depth the pluralist approach, to offer further insight into the different concepts and how pluralism can be used within the business environment.

Pluralism describes the reality of people having different worldviews that govern the way they live and regard the world. Many things influence worldviews: to name a few, geography, culture, religion, and politics. Some of us look at the world from the perspective of religion; some have secular values as their organising centre. Some differences are bred by our peculiar culture so that the Muslims among us probably find wives serving their husbands normal, while others might find the idea unacceptable. Differences however also exist within cultures. The population of one country could have a variety of religions, political beliefs, and cultural identities. Therefore some will agree that democracy is the foundation to pluralism, its the belief that democracy is a balancing structure between all of the different interest groups within society; for example pluralist believe the Government takes of the role of ‘honest broker’ or mediator between all of the different groupings which exist in society and society is too large to take into account the needs and desires of all citizens, therefore interest groups have to take on the role of representing various factions within society. The number and power of the various interest groups will act as a brake on the power and influence of the other interest group, so in relation to pluralism implications to industrial relations, management should there for except the reality of opposing interest and that workplace quarrel is a common component of social dynamics of present industrial organisations. In this regard it is argued to not only provide management with the most efficient means for institutionalising employment rules and minimising the level of workplace conflict, but to also encourage fairer outcomes by enabling employees to organise and counter-balance the power of managers when negotiating workplace contracts (K.Abbott 2006).

There are three analytic perspectives that can be brought to bear on the topic of industrial relations: unitarism, pluralism and marxism, these perspectives operate at the level of meta-theory. At the lower level of analysis, explicit theorisation of the industrial relations situation is poorly developed. This may in part be due to the fact that industrial relations are fundamentally interdisciplinary, having no distinct status as a discipline and no distinct conceptual apparatus around which to frame review and discuss. Industrial relations has proved generally incapable of restating or revisiting its core paradigms, as they were established in the 1970s. Most of us have indeed for a ‘narrow focus on investigation and analysis’, as if this could proceed effectively without rethinking the underlying theoretical framework of discipline (P.Ackers 2002). However unitarism philosophy is a new derivative, coming out of the 1980s. It is a market-oriented philosophy where the whole organisation is geared to success in the marketplace, with commitment to customer satisfaction and high standards of quality. A key component of unitarism is the importance given to HRM. It is held that any organisational change should be achieved through the development of the full potential of employees. It emphasises the importance of the development and maintenance of organisational culture that seeks to develop everyone to their full potential and hence secure full and enthusiastic commitment to the aims of the organisation. In support of this emphasis, the unitarism perspective focuses strongly on the training of individuals, providing them with career development plans, opportunities for promotion and performance-related pay. Unitarists start from a set of assumptions and values that hold workplace conflict is not an inevitable characteristic of relations between managers and employees. Conflict in the workplace may periodically emerge between the two, but such occurrences are believed to be aberrations in a relationship that is inherently prone to be cooperative (K.Abbott 2006). This perspective runs strongly counter to the traditional union philosophy of collective bargaining, which tends to determine the terms and conditions of employees on a group basis. The unitarism perspective makes the personnel function pivotal in any organisation. Recruitment, selection, induction, career progression, training and remuneration are key components, it is held, of a company’s future. Unitarism philosophy arose out of the human relations (HR) movement, and is probably the most dominant contemporary organisational paradigm.

Marxism’s frame of reference is based on the premise that conflict exists in society and is quite naturally mirrored in that mini-society, the workplace. Development, they argue, can only occur through the dialectic of the owners of the means of production with those who offer their labour. Progress can only occur, it is held, when the homeostatic self interest of the owners is challenged or overturned by the equality seeking working class. Whilst Karl Marx theory is usually held to be the foundation of Marxism, it is widely accepted that some of his century old ideas are no longer valid. Applying a Marxist frame of reference to employee relations, social conflict is viewed as a natural outcome of capitalism, the result of on-going struggle between two competing social classes, whilst industrial conflict is viewed as being a reflection of this struggle played out in the workplace (K.Abbott 2006). Indeed the uprising of the masses rebelling against the unfair capitalist system has not yet materialised and it can be argued that it is unlikely to. Yet Marxist theory has been developed into a more pluralist viewpoint. Rather than out and out conflict and rebellion of Marxist theory, the pluralists hold that the peaceful resolution of conflict is a better way forward. Whilst it is recognised that management hold the balance of power, pluralism holds that institutions and processes of organisational relations should seek to resolve any conflicts arising from this power by reaching a workable compromise acceptable to all stakeholders. Hence the central role that collective bargaining and union representation has. Each group within the stakeholder web can maintain its identity, whilst the controlling mechanism run by management keeps a balance between the interests of the various groups. The overall consideration for management is to ensure that harmony exists and that compromises and agreements work.

But this is not always the case as some would argue that the pluralist approach neglects the role of individuals in industrial relations, as well as the deferent contexts in which workplace struggles take place. In this regard the approach is said to be methodologically flawed because it assumes some groups have more power than others without inquiring sufficiently into the way each group acquires power and authority (S.Petsazll, K.Abbott and N.Timo 2007). It is the task of management to embrace pluralism and allow stakeholders the ability to participate in company decision making processes, in order for this to eventuate management will need to take a step back and renounce their own beliefs, adjudicate and recognise that individuals and/or stakeholders are not the route of conflict but are the expression of diverse industrial relations. A bureaucracy is actively representative if it advocates the interests of a given segment of society. The distinction between active and passive representation is one that is not solely a bureaucratic concern; the same issue is frequently applied to legislatures to determine such questions as whether an increase in the number of female legislators results in policies that are more beneficial to women (K.J.Meier and D.P.Hawes 2008). This in turn defines the limitations of pluralism if senior management chose to reject as a corporation can choose to ignore differences among employees by imposing a mission and a code of ethics that do not go through any form of consultation among the internal stakeholders. The top people in the organisation can indoctrinate the whole company on what they believe is good for the organisation. There are also corporations that strictly screen new employees because they do not want to create too much diversity that might dilute an existing company culture or threaten the company’s vision, it can be argued that a company’s articulated mission and vision should define its character and culture so that there is a limited spectrum of differences that it can tolerate. Procedures agreed upon by mutually recognised parties already belonging to the established system of representation have limited regulatory effectiveness where new actors challenge the legitimacy of that system and intentionally use their disruptive power in order to gain their slot in the representation system itself, from which they are excluded. In such a situation, the pluralist recipe presupposes as already solved what is precisely the problem to be solved (L.Bordogna 2008).

Pluralism is a reality that Australian industrial relations will have to contend with, pluralism however does not require us not to have a position or not to commit ourselves to a value system. What is required of us is that we articulate this position in a reasoned process and become more mature. The Australian workforce should be exposed to many other frames of reference, they should be encouraged to define their own values, argue for it and be argued to by other positions to develop a cohesive and harmonious balance. Although some will argue for one frame of reference to dominate the balance within the workforce, the theory can be flawed, as previously shown through the faults of discussed pluralistic views and the down side to incorrect use of power. Industrial relation theories provide a means of explaining what is occurring and provide a means by which to predict the future, but making the assumption that three board frames of reference can deliver known results is incorrect as they should only be used to assist in the interoperation and prediction of the industrial relations.

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