Unsuccessful partnership

To suggest that workplace partnership has been totally successful and as a result management priorities have changed would be nave, indeed there is a view amongst many authors that partnership has in fact been unsuccessful, and as a result management priorities have not changed, management may in fact be using partnership with ulterior motives in order to further undermine union power.

Salamon (2000), points to the fact that as with previous 'new' management strategies that were forecast to change fundamentally the nature of employment relations, only a small number of well-publicised organisations have sought to implement 'workplace partnership' as a coherent 'new-start' strategy.

Further to this there appears to be a relatively small number of partnership agreements in Britain, and according to Tailby and Winchester (2000), this is compounded by the fact that they 'exist in an institutional vacuum' within the wider society – workplace partnership is not being complemented by social partnership at the national level. It is fair to say that if there has only been a limited adoption of partnership agreements in Britain then it is unlikely that such agreements are significantly changing management practices.

Despite its advocacy by the TUC and major trade unions, concrete manifestations of partnership remain rather thin on the ground within the British economy (Guest and Peccei, 2000). As stated earlier there has been some diffusion of partnerships within sectors, such as banking, retail and the spirits industry but, in other industries, partnership firms have not attracted imitators (e.g. water, cement and business services) (Heery, 2002). It is prudent, therefore, for us to conclude that management practices in industrial relations are not significantly changing due to the adoption of partnership, purely because of the fact that partnership is not being significantly adopted. 

An important point to note when deciding if management priorities have changed due to the adoption of partnership agreements, is the fact that many partnership agreements have emerged from a business crisis (e.g. Blue Circle, Hyder and Rover) and were actually the product of employer coercion of unions (Heery, 2002). This has taken the form of derecognition of critical unions (Hyder), the threat of derecognition unless partnership was accepted (Tesco) or the threat of major job losses (United Distillers).

So we can see that several prominent partnership agreements have emerged from a threat to the position of the union, which signal an employer-dominant process of reform (Heery, 2002). This clearly indicates that in some cases partnership agreements are being forced upon unions, thus indicating that management priorities are not changing.

Indeed, it can be argued that not only have partnership agreements had a limited adoption, in some cases they have actually been opposed, indicating that management priorities are not changing. It has been argued that management often see partnership as 'another union Trojan horse', which will undermine the drive towards a 'free' labour market and the individualisation of the employment relationship. It is also claimed that unions are 'sceptical of the possibility of genuine partnership' as it contains the potential for subverting the union's role by its incorporation into management, as it is argued that unions have little choice but to accept 'a role within the organisation which has been defined by management' (Salamon, 2000).

John Kelly is an author who has argued strongly against unions adopting partnership; his work backs up the view that management have little interest in taking partnership seriously and are actually seeking to reduce union influence further. He points out that employers are becoming increasingly willing to think of life without unions, this suggests to us that management priorities are unlikely to be changing due to the adoption of partnership, since it is difficult, if not impossible for unions to achieve a partnership with a party who would prefer they didn't exist. To support his argument Kelly has pointed to cases of union-member rejection of partnership, such as a 49% vote against partnership at Scottish Power, and initial rejection at companies such as United Distillers (Heery, 2002). 

Kelly (1996) has argued that partnership is actually a sophisticated attempt by management to bypass or marginalise unions, by using it to implement redundancies, reduce wages and re-assert managements 'right to manage'. He points out that companies who have introduced partnership approaches such as HRM have almost all tried to reduce the range of issues over which unions can exert influence. Indeed one large company – Cadbury Ltd – produced a confidential document stating that, 'the role of the trade union needs to be marginalised by greater focus on direct communication and consultation, but without an overt statement to this effect'.

This clearly implies that in some cases management have little intention of changing their priorities and are adopting partnership practices under false pretences. Indeed Kelly (1996) states ' there is little sign that employers are seeking out forms of moderate unionism, or are open to partnerships with unions: more and more they appear to not want unions at all'. This view is backed up by the work of Tailby and Winchester (2000) who argue that many employers are willing to pursue aggressive policies of resistance to union recognition campaigns, or to establish employee forums and consultative committees as an alternative to trade union recognition.

To sum up Guest and Peccei (2001) argue that mutuality lies at the core concept of partnership, however the analysis of the principles that are endorsed and the practices that are in place indicates greater emphasis is placed on employee contribution than on promotion of employee welfare and rights and independent representation, indicating management may be gaining more from the practice of partnership. 

Finally Heery (2002) makes an important point, when he notes that there is little incentive for many employers to respond to a union-led partnership agenda. He argues that this emanates from the structural features of British business, which arguably discourage companies from seeking a long-term co-operative relationship with their workforce. The framework of corporate governance and financing places a premium on short-term performance and the maintenance of shareholder value, thus diminishing management responsiveness to other potential stakeholders (Sisson, 1995), including unions, thus suggesting that management have little interest in perusing partnership agreements or changing their priorities.