Industrial Relations - Conflict between companies and unions

What is industrial relations? 

An introduction to an area of dispute resolution in the workplace context.
The scenario is all too typical. You’re at a cocktail party and someone asks you about your profession. You tell them that you studied industrial relations and are now working in the area. Your interlocutor gives you the most puzzled look and then proceeds to ask:

“What’s industrial relations?”

Unfortunately, industrial relations is an esoteric term, known only in niche academic and professional circles. Put simply, it is a broad field of inquiry and practice dedicated to all facets of the employment relationship. The field strives to comprehend the experiences of employees and how these experiences are shaped by labor-management relations, human resource management practices, and public policies. It often addresses workplace conflict. They do so to understand how these forces shape outcomes for both employee well-being and organizational performance.

This is not to be confused with human resource management, a field focused mainly on managing people and organizational performance. The field of industrial relations is much larger than HR. According to a book by Bruce Kaufman  on the field’s history in the United Stated, industrial relations arguably originated in the 1920s. Its origins are rooted in two schools, the personnel management and institutional labor economics schools. The former focused on labor problems at the managerial level and the latter emphasized institutional contexts and public policy.

Today, the field of industrial relations in North America looks quite different. There are fewer business schools offering degrees explicitly in the area, and it appears that the field is being eclipsed to some extent by HR and organizational behavior. Nonetheless, the field of industrial relations is still experiencing considerable success. Many prominent programs are being offered by institutions such as Cornell’s ILR School, the University of Toronto’s Centre for Industrial Relations, the University of Montreal’s School of Industrial Relations, and Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations. These Departments are actually engaged in a serious revitalization of the field, placing graduates in prominent business schools across the world who will reinvent the field.

This being said, as a North American, it is important to know that the field of industrial relations is very diverse, and extends beyond the experiences of Anglo-Saxon business and industrial relations departments. Many people studying sociology, economics, political science, and psychology consider themselves to be experts in industrial relations, focusing on aspects of the employment relationship which relate to their respective disciplines.

If we look abroad, we notice that the field of industrial relations has manifested itself differently across different countries and regions. Australian and British business schools are filled with industrial relations scholars. Meanwhile, Continental Europeans study industrial relations but do not associate themselves with the label. And they use a different lexicon to discuss issues pertaining to industrial relations, since their systems are so different. For example, Belgians understand wage-setting differently than we do largely because all Belgian wages are set through negotiations between companies and unions, while the vast majority of wages in Canada and the United States are set independently by the employer.

Having spoken about the degrees offered in industrial relations, what do industrial relations experts do? This is highly related to one’s personal interests and choice of specialization within the degree. Someone interested in labor-management relations may choose to be an expert negotiator and engage in collective bargaining, representing either a union or employer. On the other hand, those interested in human resource management may choose to work for a company, or opt to do consultancy work for private and public sector organizations. There are also those interested in public policy who would opt for a career in government.

This being said, there are many positive reasons to study industrial relations. Many speak of the benefits of getting master’s in industrial relations as an alternative to the now all too common MBA. Additionally, the placement rates of graduates from industrial relations programs are still considerably high and lucrative.

So, if you’ve been reading up until this point, you may be a bit more knowledgeable of what constitutes industrial relations and where the field is currently going. It's quite an interesting, and at times controversial, topic. Many industrial relations experts consider themselves to have dedicated their careers to improving the lives of workers. For this reason, they have a vested interest in the future of industrial relations as a field of inquiry and practice.

Sean, Industrial Relations Blogger

Sean O'Brady is a PhD student at the University of Montreal's School of Industrial Relations specializing in labor relations and the social regulation of economic security. He has worked with various policy teams at the Government of Canada, as well as numerous research initiatives, including his current role as a doctoral researcher with the Interuniversity Research Centre on Globalization and Work (CRIMT). He can be found binge-watching Netflix dramas with his beautiful wife during his off-hours.


Industrial Relations - Conflict between companies and unions

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