workplace partnership strategies in employee mangement relations

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The partnership approach has received a considerable support in the UK from government, employers and trade unions and has become a defining feature of the new industrial relations settlement for the millennium. The weakness of trade unions at the workplace and in political field encouraged the trade union congress (TUC) to promote a partnership approach in management union relations from the early 1990s. To redefine its relationship with trade union and with the business community the labor governments before and after its election in 1997 also encouraged the concept of partnership at work. The Involvement and Partnership Association (IPA) with subject to its objective of promoting co-operation at work actively campaigned for various forms of participation at work. All these parties recognized the concept of partnership, co-operation and mutual gains as the need to fall in with the challenge of more intense international competition.

As a modern approach workplace partnership aims at managing employment and industrial relations. It also describes an employer- union relationship where both the parties actively participate to support each others interests and work together in a mutually beneficial way. The idea of workplace partnership basically focuses on building a relationship based on co-operation, not conflict, even though differences remain by breaking down the old them and us attitude resulting in mutual respect and a shared commitment to each others success and gaining a greater trust between the parties.

This essay illustrates the various sources, perspectives and principles of partnership. Also it contains the course of action that unions have adopted in this regard. The various benefits and the outcome of partnership agreements with the case examples and reasons from the literature regarding the discontinuity and the risks associated with partnership agreements have been described. It concludes that partnership agreements simply lead to joint accountability of employees, trade unions and employers for solving business issues in the most beneficial way to all the parties.

Sources of Partnership:-

The essence of partnership lies in management�s acceptance in situations where employees are highly organized; they are unlikely to achieve a commitment to improvement unless their collective interests are recognized. Three main sources for the partnership idea can be identified- first is the USA in the form of the �mutual gains� or �productivity coalition� approach (Kochan et al.1986; Kochan and Osterman 1994 cited in Edwards 2004). Second is the continental Europe where �Social partnership�, in the sense of national-level relations, had long been a feature of a number of EU member countries. Here, it is seen not only as way of responding to demands for developing social policy, but also of dealing with the expected restructuring and bringing about much-needed modernization of work organization as a mode to competitive success and the third source is the UK itself, where trade union debates over �new realism� in the mid-1980�s leading towards the proposal that they should develop a joint approach with employers to create the conditions for economic success and social cohesion in the 1990�s (Edmonds and Tuffin 1990 cited in Edwards 2004). Out come of this was a joint statement of intent, Towards Industrial Partnership (IPA 1992), signed by leading management and trade union representatives in membership of the Involvement and Partnership Association, which was the catalyst for the negotiation of �partnership� agreements by a number of companies.

Approaches to Partnership:-

Although an idea of partnership at workplace has been given a lot of importance and perceived with great interest, however its distinguishing feature still is not quite visible. There is no single definition or framework on partnership that has been accepted by both policy and academic literature. To understand the concept of partnership in depth along with its features and elements it can be broadly categorized into three approaches or perspectives viz Pluralist, Unitarist and Hybrid.

�The Pluralist approach is closely linked to employee representations in Europe that have their roots in ideas of industrial democracy (IDE 1993) and worker�s participation that acknowledge a pluralist perspective. This approach uses a representative system not necessarily involving trade union representatives but also involving directly elected representatives.� (Guest et al, 2001:208). The second approach to partnership has its roots in unitarist perspective that clearly aims to maximizing employee involvement and commitment to the firm via integration of the employees and employer interests. The particular policies and practices that are a part of the approach to partnership provide a base to categorize different parameters within the unitarist approach. One prime parameter for instance, pin points on monetary benefits and partnership for collating the interests of both employee and employer in the firm. A second perimeter emphasizes on different dimensions of direct involvement and participation of an employee. This approach aims mainly on individual employee contribution because as per the assumptions providing employees with the scope to make their own decisions regarding the issues related to their field helps in meeting their interests in the best way.

Hybrid perspective is the final and most imperative approach to partnership which collates the features of both unitarist and pluralist approach. Hybrid perspective which grounded on the pluralist approach emphasizes the need of direct forms of employee participation and involvement.

Partnership Principles:-

Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Involvement and Partnership Association (IPA) have systematically attempted to explain the meaning of partnership in UK contextual terminology.

TUC publications on partnership highlight the value added contribution that a consensus seeking trade unionism can make as the champion of the �high road� to competition based on better work and employment relations practices (TUC 2002). Six partnership principles are presented as �vital preconditions for a new accord between unions and employers� (Stuart and Martinez Lucio 2005:10-11). These illustrate the need for a common understanding of market imperatives, the centrality of voice mechanisms, job-security and investments in the quality of employees working conditions to sustainable and effective partnerships. The principles (adapted from TUC 2001) are-Commitment to the success of the enterprise, recognizing legitimate interests, commitment to employment security, focus on the quality of working life, transparency and adding value.

The TUC developed these principles to create a legitimate trade union presence in the partnership �industry� that boomed after the 1997 general election (Stuart and Martinez Lucio 2005; Terry 2003 cited in Tailby 2007).

IPA (1997:4) classifies the following four identical primary blocks of the principles of partnership viz. 1.) Employee involvement, voice and representation, 2.) Sharing profitability and financial success. 3.) Inculcating effective communication and consultation and, 4.) Flexibility and security.

The Rationale of Trade Unions:-

It is important to analyze how and why trade unions have engaged with partnership? The outcomes of the British union movement�s obsession with �formalizing� industrial relations and expanding the role of labour in under-represented areas can be taken as one of the reasons for trade unions interests in partnership. In this context, Ackers and Payne (1996) states that �whereas 1980�s TUC �New Realism� was a defensive, reactive accommodation to the inescapable reality of declining union and rising employ power, social partnership appears as a more proactive policy with an expansive vision of the parts union might play in British and European society�. �New Realism� focuses on the concept of partnership. The motive behind modernizing project of British trade unionism let it be New Realism, the New Agenda or Partnership is extending union roles at work, finding a role for unions within the �architecture of HRM� and limiting the possibility of marginalization (Martinez Lucio and Weston 1992 cited in Lucio et al 2004). The trade union movement with a greater degree of legitimacy at the workplace is the outcome of a new relation with business. The �New Unionism� project focusing upon assertive recruitment campaigns provides an alternative, direct and locally driven approach that contradicts the desire for a closer relation with management (Taylor and Ramsay, 1998). At European level, partnership refers to union involvement in European Social Dialogue and the negotiation of framework agreements. At state level, it refers to attempts to position the TUC as an authoritative partner in economic and social management based around the negotiation of a National Economic Assessment. At economic and sectoral level, it refers to attempts to revive multi-employer collective bargaining. Finally, at company level, �social partnership� refers to the negotiation of distinctive partnership agreements between unions and management with a motive to promote a new and more co-operative set of relations within the firm. The TUC has registered more than 50 partnership agreements and the examples are of � Allied Domecq, Asda, Barclays Bank, Blue Circle Cement, Britannia Building Society, Cammell-Laired, Tesco, Unisys, Leyland Trucks and Rover (BIFU/ Nat West SA/ Unifi, 1999; Haynes and Allen, 1999; IRS,1999 b; 1999 c; Kelly, 1999; Katz and Darbishire, 2000; Knell, 1999; Marks et al.1998; Tailby and Winchester, 2000; Thomas and Wallis, 1998; Towers, 1997). Through these agreements the immediate employment-centered interests of union members was achieved. The key feature of these agreements is that they aim to address issues which have often been neglected by unions in the past (Strauss1998 cited in Heery 2002). These agreements not only are on employment security in exchange for flexible working but they also emphasize on worker entitlement to training and development as well as addresses the �qualitative� needs of workers (Hyman, 1997a cited in Heery 2002) including clauses on employee involvement and communication, single status and equal treatment and �dignity� at work (Haynes and Allen, 1999; Knell, 1999; Thomas and Wallis; 1998 cited in Heery 2002). Unions represent their member�s interests by using methods relying on different processes of job regulation; can impart a militant or co-operative character to their dealings with employers and either they can choose to act through the collective organization and participation of their members or can �service� members through a hierarchy of professional officers.

Union Approaches to HRM:-

The similarities between the HRM and �social partnership� are evident from the basic aim of attainment of competitive advantage and compiling employee involvement and communication techniques to breed commitment. Though union�s definition of own role were not fixed still they come to terms with HRM being jerked in certain directions. By the early 1990�s, unions divided almost into groups that can be categorized as traditional pluralists; pragmatic pluralist and accommodationists. This classification leads to some observations such as �new realist� label tends to misses certain key dynamics in union responses and limits to tolerance also the pragmatic pluralists are in a compromise position where responses are highly fluid and guidelines are few. In UK labour movement discussion of HRM related with �soft� and �hard� variants of HRM has played an imperative role. The TUC report to Congress on HRM (TUC1994:9) is a typical example of the implicit conflation of �soft� with good and �hard� with bad. �Good� is seen as improving productivity through developing �employee commitment� while �bad� is characterized as �individualizing the employment relationship to cancel a vigorous anti-union policy�. The growing advancement of HRM seen as cogenial from a union view point, so that the role of unions become one of ensuring that these comprise the heart of agreements with employers resting upon an invalid anatomization of HRM.

If the components of HRM are deconstructed and put under a �soft� and �hard� spectrum as in the below Table, it can be seen that a threat to trade unionism can exist at any point in time in the spectrum. Implication here is �soft� methods can leave trade unionists at workplace level at a disadvantage especially when these methods aims to increase management�s legitimacy. Where as, �hard� elements imply a challenge to the independence of trade union organization even if there are merit pay schemes that are counter posed to collective bargaining on pay. The potential view of HRM leads towards an attempt to push management into a positive rather than negative choice of emphasis. The institutional strategies for this in the U.S have been mutual gains bargaining but in the UK the social partnership philosophy has lead to the partnership agreement. A report of �New Deal� at Rover Group in 1992 followed by key deals at United Distillers in 1994 and at Blue Circle in early 1997 has emphasized success, considerably in the guaranteeing of job security and union recognition.

[Adapted from: Taylor, P. Ramsay, H. (1998). Unions Partnership and HRM: Sleeping With the Enemy? International Journal of Employment Studies. 6(2):125]

Benefits of Partnership:-

As per Gerry Sutcliffe (former Employment Relations Minister), �working together makes good business sense and is essential for companies and industries committed to success. Good employers know that only by valuing people can you boost productivity and encourage innovation� (speaking at a presentation to the Partnership at Work prize winners, 19th April 2004).

From the perspective of an organisational stakeholder, employees and trade unions the benefits of partnership at workplace is shown in the Table 1, following some of the case examples of partnership agreements in Table 2. The table 2 also shows the aim of partnership agreements and their outcome for specific organisations.

[Adapted from: Working in Partnership- What does partnership academic research tell us. 2005.]

TABLE 2- case examples of partnership agreements

[Adapted from: Working in Partnership- What does partnership academic research tell us. 2005.]

Risks of Partnership:-

The risks of partnership agreements to TUC are associated with the unbalanced trade-off between flexibility and security (including work force development and better quality of life). The actual support mechanisms and preconditions for the development of partnership have yet to emerge for trade unions in relation to employment security, focus on the quality of working life and transparency (Stuart et al;2005). From management perspective the partnership agreement is risky due to the involvement of extra costs and slowing down of the decision making process that also leads to pragmatic decisions rather than desire (Ackers et al;1996).

Due to a lack of definition and uncertainty over measurement of its success, assessment of their long term impact has been problematic and has resulted in many questioning whether partnership agreements have durability, arguing that they are �fundamentally unstable� (Martinez Lucio and Stuart, 2005: p 797). However, Bacon and Samuel (2007) found that of the 248 sign partnerships between 1990 and 2007, 81% had in fact survived. Their findings suggest that partnership agreements are a lot more durable then had been previously predicted.

Reasons for Discontinued Partnership Agreements:-

[Source: Outcome of partnership agreements made between 1990 and 2007 (Bacon and Samuel, 2007)]

The above statistics shows that more than half of the partnership agreements were lost between 1997 and 2000. The reasons for this loss were- restructuring (26%), takeovers (19%), closure of operations (15%), signing new agreements (9%), joint abandoning of employer and union(6%), sole union abandoning (6%) and (2%) contract lost.

Criticism of Partnership:-

Partnership has always remain a key focus of debate in industrial relations. The main reason of debate on partnership has been due to an evaluation of the specific manifestations of partnerships.The central point of debate between critics and advocates of partnership has basically focused on- is partnership responsible for depleting trade union representative capacity or is able to increases it. The coherence of the partnership model has also been questioned. It has been pointed out that trade unions face significant difficulties and political riska in adopting the partnership approach (Kelly 1996;Taylor and Ramsay 1998 cited in Stuart et al.2005). Taylor and Ramsay (1998) as cited in Stuart et al. (2005) further made arguments on partnership-based arrangements that these arrangements may draw trade unions into a management strategy of enhancing surveillance and work intensification. According to Martinez Lucio and Stuart (2005), partnership is a development that represents the emergence of a new approach to employment relations whichhelps in rasing the broader questions about the regulation of employment relations. Hence, partnership must be viewed as a more complex political development and an attempt to reconfigure the employment relations and not just its outcomes.

Conclusion:-

The concept of partnership is widely used in the practice of contemporary industrial relations. Partnership agreement is not a substitute for collective bargaining or day-to-day problem solving that takes place in the workplaces. It leads to joint decision making for solving business issues taking into account the interests of the management, trade unions and employees. Hence, it is not an easy option. With the use of literature three main perspectives and the principles of partnership have been identified. Also with the union approaches to the mainstream HRM resulted in developing an integrated framework for the analysis of partnership. When the trade unions, employers, employees or other employee representatives come together in a relationship of mutual gains and trust then the benefits are countless, though there are certain difficulties but these can be sorted out before they become problems. Also the enormous benefits of partnership agreements outweigh the limitations of employers and unions in signing the agreement.

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