Concept of Industrial Relations

The study if industrial relations like some other fields of study present a complex set of definitions of which none is universally agreed as the most appropriate definition. Some authors advocate for the definition of the scope of industrial relations in narrow terms in order to grasp its concepts, while others prefer a broader view of a network of social relationships in the industry.

Flanders (1965:10) articulates that the study of industrial relations may be described as a study of institutions of job regulation. Job regulation is defined as the process of controlling job content through the creation of rules. There can be unilateral job regulation, by management or by workers/unions, or joint job regulation through collective bargaining. Job content may be affected by collective agreements both inside and outside the factory, by legislation, by works rules and wages structures.

According to Blyton and Turnbull (1998), the Oxford School made up of Flanders, Clegg and Fox reiterate that a system of rules makes up the industrial relations system. These rules appear in different guises, in legislation and statutory orders, in trade union regulations, in collective agreements, in arbitration awards, in social conventions, in managerial decisions and accepted custom and practice. The subject deals with certain regulated or institutionalised relationships in industry and rules is the only generic term that can be given to the various instruments of regulation.

Flanders stresses that not all relationships associated with the organisation of the industry are relevant. The only aspect of the business enterprise with which industrial relations is concerned is the employment aspect, the relationship between the enterprise and its employees and among those employees themselves. The relationships are identified by placing them in a legal setting.

Rules that regulate industrial relations are subdivided in two, which are procedural clauses and substantive clauses. Procedural clauses are those agreements that deal with such matters as the methods to be used and the stages to be followed in the settlement of disputes. Substantive clauses refer to the rates of wages and working hours or other job terms and conditions in the segment of employment covered by agreement.

One of the aspects of rules is to establish rights and obligations which define status. The procedural rules of industrial relations settle the status of any of the parties participating in job regulation whether this is through collective bargaining or other methods. The substantive rules attach various rights and obligations to jobs and settle their status regardless of individuals who occupy them. They fix the rate for the job and many other standard terms and conditions of employment.

Clegg (1979) is one of the authors who subscribe and concretize the notion that industrial relations is all about the study of rules in the workplace. He states that industrial relations is about the study of rules governing employment together with the ways in which that rules are made and changed, interpreted and administered.

Bain and Clegg (1974), say that industrial relations is a study of all aspects of job regulations, the making and administering of rules which regulate employment relationship regardless of whether these are seen as being formal or informal, structured or unstructured. The rules themselves cannot be apart from the organisation that takes part in the process, namely trade unions, employers associations and government and consequently each of the organisations has its own sources of authority.

Literally, for industrial relations to be seen as job regulation there must be a system of web of rules regulating employment and the ways in which people behave at work. Internal regulation must be concerned with procedures for dealing with grievances, redundancies or disciplining problems and rules concerning the operation of the pay system. External regulation must also be carried out by means of employment legislation, rules of trade unions and employers associations and the regulative content of procedural and or substantive rules and agreements.

Such internal job regulation mentioned earlier, maybe unilateral when management imposes rules without consultation and when workers also make their own rules in their groups. In bi-lateral job regulation management negotiates and agrees with employees. External job regulation is unilateral when union rules through strikes, boycotting at any level that is maybe regional or national level. Bilateral job regulation occurs when multi-employer bargaining takes place with one or more unions. Third part job regulations is when rules are determined by arbitration.

Hyman argues that the definition of industrial relations in terms of job regulation is unsatisfactory since it diverts attention from the structure of power and interests, the economic, technological and political dynamics of the labour society and factors which inevitably shape the character of relations between employers and their organisations. Such a definition carries with it a danger of reification that is; it becomes easy to ignore the real active men and women who participate in industrial relations.

This notion of regulation also conceals the centrality of power, conflict and instability in the processes of industrial relations.

Moreover, it does amount to a scholarly discussion to talk of industrial relations without political influences, economic influences, and social influence, hence industrial relations should also encompass these, which might be out of job regulations per ser. Industrial relations encompass: relationships, the work situation and the workingman, the problems and issues of modern industrial and industrializing society and of certain process, structures, institutions, regulations, which therefore covers social, political, economic, and historical context.

The issue of group behavior, culture, beliefs and religion also affect how people relate in the work situation. Powers of the parties to industrial relations can be derived from the economic, the social and the political set up, which has nothing to do with job regulations.

Hyman prefers to define industrial relations in terms of processes of control over work relations. This definition provides a criterion for excluding merely personal relationships in industry from the field of study, while including the informal processes of control. It helps indicate that the continuous relationship of conflict, whether open or concealed, stems from a conflict of interests in industry and society which is closely linked with the operation of contradictory tendencies in the capitalist economic system.

Though Flanders definition of industrial relations in terms of job regulation is restrictive, it is unavoidable that rules of all kinds do pervade the world of work and employment and institutions which devise and implement these rules are of central importance to the study of industrial relations.

The implication is that industrial relations is all about the maintenance of stability and regularity in the industry. The focus is how conflict is contained and controlled rather than on the processes through which disagreements and disputes are generated; therefore this exposes a shortcoming on Flanders definition.

From this perspective, the question whether the existing structure of ownership and control in industry is an inevitable source of conflict is dismissed by Flanders as external to the study of industrial relations which must be solely concerned with how employers, trade unions and other institutions cope with such conflict.

Hyman states that, in practice, ownership of capital represents concentrated economic power; a legal entitlement to dominate hence the employer can virtually dictate the broad outlines of the contract of employment. This suggests that a study of industrial relations is not complete without taking a broader look at the processes of control.

As stated by Professor Kahn Freud (1972:9), ‘there can be no employment relationship without the power to command and a duty to obey’, hence industrial relations focuses on the processes of control, since power calls upon the need to control.

This antagonism based on power in industrial relations was foretold by Frederick Engels (1892:322), when he said that, ‘This I maintain…the classes are divided more and more sharply, the spirit of resistance penetrates the workers, bitterness intensifies….,the middle class…their interests are diametrically opposed to yours though they will try to maintain the contrary and make you believe their most heart sympathy..’

With such conclusions based on antagonism and parallel interests of employers and employees, it is by no coincidence that Hyman realised that industrial relations is about processes of control and one maybe convinced to share the same sentiments, laying aside the concept of job regulation.

Dunlop (1958:7) states that industrial relations is an interplay of three sets of actors. It is seen to be comprised of certain actors, certain contexts, an ideology which binds the industrial system together and a body of rules created to govern the actors at the workplace. The actors include a hierarchy of management and their representatives, workers and their representatives and a specialised third party which is the government.

The environmental context that influences the decisions and actions of the actors include technological characteristics of the workplace and the nature of work, community, market budgetary constraints and the locus and distribution of power in the larger society. Interaction between the parties within different environmental contexts is governed in a large apart by an ideology or common set of beliefs that define the role and place of each actor and that defines the ideas which each actor holds towards the place and functions of others within the system.

Hyman supports such a sentiment as he also states that ‘the notion of a system of industrial relations implies a functional integration of the component institutions especially when a common ideology among actors is assumed’, but critiques it when combined with a focus on a set of rules, the implication is that industrial relations is all about maintenance of stability and regularity in the industry.

Dunlop is of the notion that beliefs and values of the participants in industrial relations are an automatic source of order. An industrial relations system creates an ideology of a particular industrial relations society of which it is a subsystem. Argumentatively, if the system of industrial relations is so well integrated and if the goals and values of the participants are so much in agreement, how is it that industrial conflict occurs at all.

From a perspective that defines industrial relations as job regulation, this question is unanswerable. This approach to the subject though influential is one sided and inadequate because the system of industrial relations is of analytical value only if it incorporates the existence of contradictory processes and forces. The definition must be broadened to take into account the sources as well as the consequences of industrial relations conflict hence it presents a myopic account of industrial relations.

An institutional and job regulation focus of industrial relations directs the student simply to the formal or official aspects of industrial relations that is the negotiating committees, bargaining and dispute procedures and collective bargaining procedures. This creates a dangerous tendency to conceive the subject in terms of relationships between agencies and organisations rather than between people.

Flanders bases his definition on the argument that personal or unstructured relationships have their importance for managers and workers but lie outside the scope of industrial relations. Many of the most processes of control over work relations do not flow through official and institutionalised channels and that to base the study of the subject on formal procedures and organisations alone is to impose unacceptably narrow limits.

Generally, there is no way one can run away and shun job regulation in industrial relations. Bendix (1996), a contemporary writer of this 21st century state that industrial relations emphasizes on the institutionalization of conflict by the way of collective representation, collective bargaining, job regulations and legislative constraints. Bendix also suggests that the issue of globalization, flexibility, societal issues such as societal dialogue should also be considered in understanding industrial relations. Hence conflict is inherent in industrial relations and there is need for ‘institutions of job regulation.’

Johnson (1981) takes a much broader view at industrial relations; he states that the definition of industrial relations depends on who is defining it. Various disciplines such as a science, sociology, politics psychology, and law determine the perspective of which one will define industrial relations. Deducing from his sentiments, it suggests that industrial relations is a dynamic field which deserves an eagle’s eye view. A parochial focus on the subject as job regulation will only retrieve some grain of truth rather than leaving a student empty-handed or misled hence one has to be dynamic in defining industrial relations.

Deducing from scholarly arguments, one is convinced that industrial relations has acquired a set of meanings ever since Dunlop (1958) first defined it, overally it is a consecrated euphemism for a permanent conflict between capital and labor, struggles to dominate the other party in the employment relationship.


  • Bendix, S. (1996), Industrial Relations in the New South Africa, Cape Town: Juter & Co Ltd
  • Blyton, P and Turnbull, P (1998), The Dynamics of Employee Relations, 2nd Edition, New York, Palgrave
  • Engels, F. (1892), The Conditions of the Working Class in England, London: Granade Publishing
  • Flanders (1965), Industrial Relations-Whats Wrong with the System? London: Faber and Faber
  • Fox (1979), Industrial A Social Critique of Pluralist Management and Organisation, Allen Unwin
  • Hyman, R. (1975), Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction, McMillan, London