2288 industrial relations

work. The detailed division of labor was
entrenched and reinforced in the factories, thus
rendering worker solidarity and collective orga
nization difficult. But the unbridled authority
of bosses eventually came to be challenged.
Workers formed embryonic unions and relations
between workers and their masters became
increasingly fraught.
The study of industrial relations took its
lead from these material developments in the
workplace. It is no accident that the field of
inquiry has been shaped by scholars operating
from within the economies that have dominated
the history of global capitalist development.
The study of industrial relations is a predomi
nantly Anglo Saxon discourse. Initially, scho
lars focused on processes of rule making and
the elaboration of institutional arrangements to
contain conflict. The formation, structure, and
influence of unions dominated the early key
texts, but researchers found that the character
of workplace relations, employer practices, and
the position of unions were strongly conditioned
by the wider political economy and state inter
ventions. Scholars in the United States took
the lead.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, American unions
suffered heavy membership losses and were
marginalized by company sponsored unions.
Yet, they proved to be successful in expanding
their membership in the runup to and beyond
World War II. While much of the success fol
lowed on from bitterly fought battles to build
organization, notably in Minneapolis for the
Teamsters and in Michigan amongst car work
ers, the position of US unions was bolstered by
legislation introduced under Roosevelts New
Deal, in particular the Wagner Act, which lega
lized workers rights of association, and the
Social Security Act, which underpinned the
emerging welfare state. But the changing bal
ance of forces between employers, employees,
and the unions proved difficult to capture in
theory. By the late 1950s the dominant frame
work was the systems model, which treated
industrial relations as a relatively autonomous
subset of relations influenced by politics, the
state, technology, and the economy (see Dunlop
1958; Kerr et al. 1960). Viewed as indepen
dent exogenous forces, these wider systema
tic variables were set apart conceptually from
the processes and outcomes of the politics of
production. The possibility, for example, that
the pace and impacts of technological advances
may be conditioned by the division of labor and
power struggles in the workplace was never
considered. The approach thus attracted a vast
critical literature that, inter alia, highlighted its
intrinsic determinism and failure to unravel the
complex, non linear connections and contradic
tions between the industrial relations sub
system and broader political, economic, and
technological forces.
Though initially influential in the UK, the
systems approach was modified and adapted to
take account of the particular patterns of work
place bargaining and the limited role of the state
in directly shaping the pattern of industrial
relations. The politics of pluralism dominated
the mainstream literature that was primarily
focused on institution building at workplace
level. Like their American counterparts, the
mainstream largely failed to unravel the com
plex connections between production politics
and the particular historical trajectory of the
UK economy, which by the early 1960s exhib
ited an entrenched pattern of low wages and low
productivity. Criticized for overreliance on
description, and for assuming that historical
continuities would prevail over the forces of
change, the mainstream, according to one critic
(Crossley 1968), inclined toward a historicist
method that blinded it to the contradictions
and fragility of Britains workplace institutions,
including collective bargaining.
The late 1970s recoded the high tide of
industrial relations in the Anglo Saxon coun
tries. In the UK union membership peaked at
over 13 million employees. But during the 1980s
and 1990s successive Conservative governments
promoted the view that industrial relations had
become an irrelevant public policy area. Strikes
were in decline, and major unions suffered
heavy defeats in the face of a state sponsored
employers offensive. For many commentators,
the defeat of the National Union of Minewor
kers after a year long strike between 1984 and
1985 was the turning point in modern labor
history. Rising levels of unemployment, which
topped 3 million by the mid 1980s, and a series
of draconian anti union laws sapped the capa
city of unions to fight back and resist the degra
dation of working conditions that was legion
across UK firms and industries.