Industrial relations is a multidisciplinary field that studies the employment relationship. Industrial relations is increasingly being called employment relations or employee relations because of the importance of non-industrial employment relationships; this move is sometimes seen as further broadening of the human resource management trend. Indeed, some authors now define human resource management as synonymous with employee relations. Other authors see employee relations as dealing only with non-unionized workers, whereas labor relations is seen as dealing with unionized workers. Industrial relations studies examine various employment situations, not just ones with a unionized workforce. However, according to Bruce E. Kaufman "To a large degree, most scholars regard trade unionism, collective bargaining and labor-management relations, and the national labor policy and labor law within which they are embedded, as the core subjects of the field."
Initiated in the United States at end of the 19th century, it took off as a field in conjunction with the New Deal. However, it is generally a separate field of study only in English-speaking countries, having no direct equivalent in continental Europe. In recent times, industrial relations has been in decline as a field, in correlation with the decline in importance of trade unions, and also with the increasing preference of business schools for the human resource management paradigm.
Industrial relations has three faces: science building, problem solving, and ethical. In the science building phase, industrial relations is part of the social sciences, and it seeks to understand the employment relationship and its institutions through high-quality, rigorous research. In this vein, industrial relations scholarship intersects with scholarship in labor economics, industrial sociology, labor and social history, human resource management, political science, law, and other areas.
Industrial relations scholarship assumes that labor markets are not perfectly competitive and thus, in contrast to mainstream economic theory, employers typically have greater bargaining power than employees. Industrial relations scholarship also assumes that there are at least some inherent conflicts of interest between employers and employees (for example, higher wages versus higher profits) and thus, in contrast to scholarship in human resource management and organizational behavior, conflict is seen as a natural part of the employment relationship. Industrial relations scholars therefore frequently study the diverse institutional arrangements that characterize and shape the employment relationship—from norms and power structures on the shop floor, to employee voice mechanisms in the workplace, to collective bargaining arrangements at company, regional, or national level, to various levels of public policy and labor law regimes, to "varieties of capitalism" (such as corporatism, social democracy, and neoliberalism).
When labor markets are seen as imperfect, and when the employment relationship includes conflicts of interest, then one cannot rely on markets or managers to always serve workers' interests, and in extreme cases to prevent worker exploitation. Industrial relations scholars and practitioners therefore support institutional interventions to improve the workings of the employment relationship and to protect workers' rights. The nature of these institutional interventions, however, differ between two camps within industrial relations. The pluralist camp sees the employment relationship as a mixture of shared interests and conflicts of interests that are largely limited to the employment relationship. In the workplace, pluralists therefore champion grievance procedures, employee voice mechanisms such as works councils and labor unions, collective bargaining, and labor-management partnerships. In the policy arena, pluralists advocate for minimum wage laws, occupational health and safety standards, international labor standards, and other employment and labor laws and public policies. These institutional interventions are all seen as methods for balancing the employment relationship to generate not only economic efficiency, but also employee equity and voice. In contrast, the Marxist-inspired critical camp sees employer-employee conflicts of interest as sharply antagonistic and deeply embedded in the socio-political-economic system. From this perspective, the pursuit of a balanced employment relationship gives too much weight to employers' interests, and instead deep-seated structural reforms are needed to change the sharply antagonistic employment relationship that is inherent within capitalism. Militant trade unions are thus frequently supported.
Industrial relations has its roots in the industrial revolution which created the modern employment relationship by spawning free labor markets and large-scale industrial organizations with thousands of wage workers. As society wrestled with these massive economic and social changes, labor problems arose. Low wages, long working hours, monotonous and dangerous work, and abusive supervisory practices led to high employee turnover, violent strikes, and the threat of social instability. Intellectually, industrial relations was formed at the end of the 19th century as a middle ground between classical economics and Marxism, with Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb's Industrial Democracy (1897) being the key intellectual work. Industrial relations thus rejected the classical econ.
Institutionally, industrial relations was founded by John R. Commons when he created the first academic industrial relations program at the University of Wisconsin in 1920. Another scholarly pioneer in industrial relations and labor research was Robert F. Hoxie. Early financial support for the field came from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who supported progressive labor-management relations in the aftermath of the bloody strike at a Rockefeller-owned coal mine in Colorado. In Britain, another progressive industrialist, Montague Burton, endowed chairs in industrial relations at Leeds, Cardiff and Cambridge in 1930.
Beginning in the early 1930s there was a rapid increase in membership of labor unions in America, and with that came frequent and sometimes violent labor-management conflict. During World War II these were suppressed by the arbitration powers of the National War Labor Board.
However, as World War II drew to a close and in anticipation of a renewal of labor-management conflict after the war, there was a wave of creations of new academic institutes and degree programs that sought to analyze such conflicts and the role of collective bargaining. The most known of these was the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, founded in 1945. But counting various forms, there were over seventy-five others. These included the Yale Labor and Management Center, directed by E. Wight Bakke, which began in 1945. An influential industrial relations scholar in the 1940s and 1950s was Neil W. Chamberlain at Yale and Columbia Universities. The discipline was formalized in the 1950s with the formation of the Oxford School by Allan Flanders and Hugh Clegg.
Industrial relations was formed with a strong problem-solving orientation that rejected both the classical economists' laissez faire solutions to labor problems and the Marxist solution of class revolution. It is this approach that underlies the New Deal legislation in the United States, such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
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 these.
In pluralism, the organization is perceived as being made up of powerful and divergent sub-groups, each with its own legitimate loyalties and with their own set of objectives and leaders. In particular, the two predominant sub-groups in the pluralist perspective are the management and trade unions.
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.
In unitarism, the organization is perceived as an integrated and harmonious whole with the ideal of "one happy family" in which management and other members of the staff all share a common purpose by emphasizing mutual co-operation. Furthermore, unitarism has a paternalistic approach: it demands loyalty of all employees and is managerial in its emphasis and application.
Consequently, trade unions are deemed as unnecessary since the loyalty between employees and organizations are considered mutually exclusive, and there cannot be two sides of industry. Conflict is perceived destructive and the result of poor management.
This view of industrial relations looks at the nature of the capitalist society, where there is a fundamental division of interest between capital and labor, and sees workplace relations against this background. This perspective sees inequalities of power and economic wealth as having their roots in the nature of the capitalist economic system. Conflict is therefore seen as inevitable and trade unions are a natural response of workers to their exploitation by capital. Whilst there may be periods of acquiescence, the Marxist view would be that institutions of joint regulation would enhance rather than limit management's position as they presume the continuation of capitalism rather than challenge it.
By many accounts, industrial relations today is in crisis. In academia, its traditional positions are threatened on one side by the dominance of mainstream economics and organizational behavior, and on the other by postmodernism. In policy-making circles, the industrial relations emphasis on institutional intervention is trumped by a neoliberal emphasis on the laissez faire promotion of free markets. In practice, labor unions are declining and fewer companies have industrial relations functions. The number of academic programs in industrial relations is therefore shrinking, and scholars are leaving the field for other areas, especially human resource management and organizational behavior. The importance of work, however, is stronger than ever, and the lessons of industrial relations remain vital. The challenge for industrial relations is to re-establish these connections with the broader academic, policy, and business worlds.