Approaches to Industrial Relations

Industrial conflicts are the results of several socio-economic, psychological and political factors. Various lines of thoughts have been expressed and approaches used to explain his complex phenomenon.

One observer has stated, “An economist tries to interpret industrial conflict in terms of impersonal markets forces and laws of supply demand. To a politician, industrial conflict is a war of different ideologies – perhaps a class-war. To a psychologist, industrial conflict means the conflicting interests, aspirations, goals, motives and perceptions of different groups of individuals, operating within and reacting to a given socio-economic and political environment”.

Psychological approach

The problems of IR have their origin in the perceptions of the management, unions and the workers. The conflicts between labour and management occur because every group negatively perceives the behaviour of the other i.e. even the honest intention of the other party so looked at with suspicion. The problem is further aggravated by various factors like the income, level of education, communication, values, beliefs, customs, goals of persons and groups, prestige, power, status, recognition, security etc are host factors both economic and non-economic which influence perceptions unions and management towards each other. Industrial peace is a result mainly of proper attitudes and perception of the two parties.

Sociological approach

Industry is a social world in miniature. The management goals, workers’ attitudes, perception of change in industry, are all, in turn, decided by broad social factors like the culture of the institutions, customs, structural changes, status-symbols, rationality, acceptance or resistance to change, tolerance etc. Industry is, thus inseparable from the society in which it functions. Through the main function of an industry is economic, its social consequences are also important such as urbanization, social mobility, housing and transport problem in industrial areas, disintegration of family structure, stress and strain, etc. As industries develop, a new industrial-cum-social pattern emerges, which provides general new relationships, institutions and behavioural pattern and new techniques of handling human resources. These do influence the development of industrial relations.

Human relations approach

Human resources are made up of living human beings. They want freedom of speech, of thought of expression, of movement, etc. When employers treat them as inanimate objects, encroach on their expectations, throat-cuts, conflicts and tensions arise. In fact major problems in industrial relations arise out of a tension which is created because of the employer’s pressures and workers’ reactions, protests and resistance to these pressures through protective mechanisms in the form of workers’ organization, associations and trade unions.

Through tension is more direct in work place; gradually it extends to the whole industry and sometimes affects the entire economy of the country. Therefore, the management must realize that efforts are made to set right the situation. Services of specialists in Behavioural Sciences (namely, psychologists, industrial engineers, human relations expert and personnel managers) are used to deal with such related problems. Assistance is also taken from economists, anthropologists, psychiatrists, pedagogists, tec. In resolving conflicts, understanding of human behavior – both individual and groups – is a pre-requisite for the employers, the union leaders and the government – more so for the management. Conflicts cannot be resolved unless the management must learn and know what the basic what the basic needs of men are and how they can be motivated to work effectively.

It has now been increasingly recognized that much can be gained by the managers and the worker, if they understand and apply the techniques of human relations approaches to industrial relations. The workers are likely to attain greater job satisfaction, develop greater involvement in their work and achieve a measure of identification of their objectives with the objectives of the organization; the manager, on their part, would develop greater insight and effectiveness in their work.

Theoretical perspectives

Industrial relations scholars have described three major theoretical perspectives or frameworks, that contrast in their understanding and analysis of workplace relations. The three views are generally known as unitarism, pluralist and radical. Each offers a particular perception of workplace relations and will therefore interpret such events as workplace conflict, the role of unions and job regulation differently. The radical perspective is sometimes referred to as the "conflict model", although this is somewhat ambiguous, as pluralism also tends to see conflict as inherent in workplaces. Radical theories are strongly identified with Marxist theories, although they are not limited to kosala.

Unitary Perspective

In unitarism, the organization is perceived as an integrated and harmonious system, viewed as one happy family. A core assumption of unitary approach is that management and staff, and all members of the organization share the same objectives, interests and purposes; thus working together, hand-in-hand, towards the shared mutual goals. Furthermore, unitarism has a paternalistic approach where it demands loyalty of all employees. Trade unions are deemed as unnecessary and conflict is perceived as disruptive.

From employee point of view, unitary approach means that:

  • Working practices should be flexible. Individuals should be business process improvement oriented, multi-skilled and ready to tackle with efficiency whatever tasks are required.

  • If a union is recognized, its role is that of a further means of communication between groups of staff and the company.

  • The emphasis is on good relationships and sound terms and conditions of employment.

  • Employee participation in workplace decisions is enabled. This helps in empowering individuals in their roles and emphasizes team work, innovation, creativity, discretion in problem-solving, quality and improvement groups etc.

  • Employees should feel that the skills and expertise of managers supports their endeavors.

From employer point of view, unitary approach means that:

  • Staffing policies should try to unify effort, inspire and motivate employees.

  • The organization's wider objectives should be properly communicated and discussed with staff.

  • Reward systems should be so designed as to foster to secure loyalty and commitment.

  • Line managers should take ownership of their team/staffing responsibilities.

  • Staff-management conflicts - from the perspective of the unitary framework - are seen as arising from lack of information, inadequate presentation of management's policies.

  • The personal objectives of every individual employed in the business should be discussed with them and integrated with the organization’s needs.


In pluralism the organization is perceived as being made up of powerful and divergent sub-groups - management and trade unions. This approach sees conflicts of interest and disagreements between managers and workers over the distribution of profits as normal and inescapable. Consequently, the role of management would lean less towards enforcing and controlling and more toward persuasion and co-ordination. Trade unions are deemed as legitimate representatives of employees. Conflict is dealt by collective bargaining and is viewed not necessarily as a bad thing and if managed could in fact be channelled towards evolution and positive change .Realistic managers should accept conflict to occur. There is a greater propensity for conflict rather than harmony.

They should anticipate and resolve this by securing agreed procedures for settling disputes.

The implications of this approach include:

  • The firm should have industrial relations and personnel specialists who advise managers and provide specialist services in respect of staffing and matters relating to union consultation and negotiation.

  • Independent external arbitrators should be used to assist in the resolution of disputes.

  • Union recognition should be encouraged and union representatives given scope to carry out their representative duties

  • Comprehensive collective agreements should be negotiated with unions

Marxist Perspective

The Marxist approach looks at industrial relations from a societal perspective. It views industrial relations as a microcosm of the wider capitalist society. The basic assumption of this approach is that industrial relations under capitalism are an everlasting and unavoidable source of conflict According to this approach, industrial conflicts are the central reality of industrial relations, but open conflicts are uncommon.15 The Marxist approach views industrial disputes as a class struggle and industrial relations as a politicized concept and an element of the class struggle. As per the Marxist approach, the understanding of industrial relations requires an understanding of the capitalized society, the social relations of production and the mechanism of capital accumulation.

The Marxist approach views the power relationship between the two classes, namely, the employer (capital) and the employee (labour), as the crux of the industrial relations. Both classes struggle hard to consolidate their respective positions so that they can have a greater leverage over the other in the process of bargaining. The proponents of this approach perceive that the employers can survive longer without labour than the employees can without work. As far as theory is concerned, the compensation payable to the employees is an outcome of the power struggle. For instance, the employers seek to maximize their profits by paying less compensation to the employees, while the latter resist such attempts, and this resistance results in industrial conflicts. However, the weakness of this theory is that it is narrow in approach as it views industrial relations as a product or outcome of the industrial conflict.

The System Approach

The system approach was developed by J. P. Dunlop of Harvard University in 1958. According to this approach, individuals are part of an ongoing but independent social system. The behaviour, actions and role of the individuals are shaped by the cultures of the society. The three elements of the system approach are input, process and output. Society provides the cue (signal) to the individuals about how one should act in a situation. The institutions, the value system and other characteristics of the society influence the process and determine the outcome or response of the individuals. The basis of this theory is that group cohesiveness is provided by the common ideology shaped by the societal factors.

According to Dunlop, the industrial relations system comprises certain actors, certain contexts, and an ideology, which binds them together and a body of rules created to govern the actors at the workplace and work community. The actors in the system are the managers, the workers and their representatives, and the government agencies. The rules in the system are classified into two categories:

Substantive rules and Procedural rules.

The substantive rules determine the conditions under which people are employed. Such rules are normally derived from the implied terms and conditions of employment, legislations, agreements, practices and managerial policies and directives.

The procedural rules govern how substantive rules are to be made and understood. Ultimately, the introduction of new rules and regulations and revisions of the existing rules for improving the industrial relations are the major outputs of the industrial relations system. These may be substantive rules as well as procedural rules." The context in the system approach refers to the environment of the system which is normally determined by the technological nature of the organization, the financial and other constraints that restrict the actors of industrial relations, and the nature of power sharing in the macro environment, namely, the society.