A New Theory of Industrial Relations: People, Markets and Organizations after Neoliberalism

Most theoretical approaches to industrial relations and human resources management (IR/HRM) build their analyses and policy prescriptions on one of two foundational assumptions. They assume either that conflict between workers and employers is the natural and inevitable state of affairs; or that under normal circumstances cooperation is what employers can and should expect from workers. Marxists, for example, argue that the attitudes and behaviour of the members of organizations ultimately derive from the wage relation and the exploitation inherent in the extraction of surplus value. More straightforwardly, industrial relations pluralists in the Anglo-American tradition assume that the allocation of wealth between labour and capital is a zero-sum game and as such is necessarily conflictual. Human resource management however, usually begins from the assumption that employers and employees have a shared interest in organizational success and that conflict at work is pathological rather than normal or inevitable. Having already taken a position on whether conflict or cooperation are to be expected, all of these conventional approaches to IR/HRM have trouble taking seriously any evidence that contradicts their foundational assumptions. By contrast, the theoretical framework for IR/HRM proposed in this book treats the existence of conflict or cooperation at work as an outcome that needs to be explained rather than an initial supposition. A New Theory of Industrial Relations: People, Markets and Organizations after Neoliberalism follows Alan Fox in supposing that our principal task is to understand the conditions under which employees will accept as legitimate – or reject as illegitimate – the ‘structures of the situation’ within which they work. It argues that whether workers fight against or willingly accept the web of relationships that constitutes the organization cannot be taken as given. Rather, it depends on the interplay between three empirically variable factors: the day-to-day experience of incentives, constraints and social interaction at work; the wider cultural and socio-political context within which work takes place; and, critically, the way in which work as a social relationship is understood or grasped by members of organizations.

About the Author

Conor Cradden is research fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland

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