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This essay looks to examine the relevance of unitarism to contemporary understandings of the employment relationship. This will highlight the underlying assumptions associated with unitarism, considering the influence of both power and knowledge within the employment relationship, and question whether both factors play a part within the unitarism perspective. Lastly it will conclude by outlining the number of elements associated with the employment relationship and whether the unitarism perspective bases an understanding of the employment relationship between employer and employees.
There are numerous assumptions of the unitarism perspective within the workplace. According to Huczynski and Buchanan (2001) the unitarism frame of reference is “a perspective on conflict which regards management and employee interests as coincident and which thus regards (organisational) conflict as harmful and to be avoided”. Salamon (1992) believes the organisation exists in good harmony and all conflict is unnecessary and exceptional. However there are implications in adopting the unitarism approach, the term conflict is expressed as if there is dissatisfaction from the employees with differences in which management is perceived when carrying out an unreasonable activity. Another implication is trade unions are regarded as an invasion and are trying to compete with management to gain loyalty from the employees, of which the unitarism perspective dislikes. The unitarism concept can be seen as an approach to control the employees, and the psychological contract is an example of this, which stems from the unitarism perspective. According to Gill (2007) PC literature is often based on the unitarism perspective. Fox (1966) argues the unitarism perspective, is found among managers and is regarded as a 'management ideology'. Therefore highlighting the unitarism perspective as an important theoretical tool to examine employee attitudes and perceptions of management in an organisational context. Unitarism is another tool in which organisations use to control the working environment, which tends to ignore conflict as it does not believe it exists. The unitarism frame of reference affected the employment relationship in 19th century, however in today's society this is seen as an ideology as suggested by Fox (1966).
According to Blyton and Turnbull (1998) the term industrial relations will need to change its focus to 'employment relations', looking at how the employment relationship operates in practice.
There is an assumption that once there has been an agreement with the employment contract, the employment relationship should be free of conflict, and employees should accept and understand the authority the organisation has in the best interests of all. However, this assumption can be seen to be incorrect as it assumes that one size fits all, where as studies such as Purcell and Hutchinson (2007) show this not to be the case.From this view point I would argue that the focus draws away from the organisation as a whole and looks at individuals, therefore bringing in the paradigm of the psychological contract. The PC believes that when the individual (employee) enters into an agreement with the organisation and manager, and the individual has agreed to this agreement there should be no conflict. This brings in an element of unity within the organisation as all are agreeing as individuals to the organisation. With this attachment to the organisation and its purposes the ideal outcome from entering into this agreement is commitment/engagement to the organisation. The PC concept is emphasised on managerialism, unitarism, neo-liberal and a social exchange which is utilised by management to manage performance. The PC communicates its expectations and serves a political interest to management. Even though the PC does not recognise conflict, it does recognise violation when it is breached; which comes back to the element of control exerted by the employer.
There are other forms of perspectives organisations adopt, one of the most commonly used is the pluralist approach. Marchington and Parker (1990) argues that there are key differences between the two perspectives (unitarism and pluralism) they are the 'management's acceptance and recognition of unions', 'their views about management prerogatives' and 'employee participation', and in the 'perceived legitimacy of and reactions to conflict at work'. Therefore as unitarism perspective dislikes trade unions, the paradigm of job regulation has more relevance to the pluralist perspective as it accepts there is conflict and institutionalises it. The job regulation paradigm allows for managers to have power and processes regulation to create order, which regulates power between the employer and employee. This paradigm has an element of objectivity, as again it is management that exert power. However with trade unions helping to institutionalise conflict it therefore allows collective bargaining to take place. According to Kaufman (2008) the IR field has made a shift towards a narrower paradigm of which consisted of trade unions, collective bargaining and labour-management relations over the past few decades.
There is an issue of equality which needs to be addressed in the employment relationship. The employment relationship is not equal as the employer is in the position of power, by using the knowledge of the workforce and manipulating them by the use of language they use in the working environment to gain control. As suggested by Foucault, organisations change language in order to dominate the workforce. However, Foucault (1980) also believed that knowledge is an integral part of power and cannot be separated. “It is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power” (Foucault, 1980: p52). I agree with Foucault's statement in how power cannot be enforced without knowledge, as if it did there would be severe consequences to the organisation and employees. As suggested by Townley (1993) “Power is the desire to know. Power is not negative; on the contrary, it is creative”. From this statement it suggests that power is not a negative, but can be utilised to get the best out of knowledge. Again this relates to the unitarism perspective as it exerts power, in order to control knowledge within the workplace and in society in general.
In conclusion the unitarism perspective contains assumptions that if it controls the working environment then there will be no conflict, however as discussed earlier this is not the case. The employment relationship is not equal and the employer positions themselves in power by using language to control the workforce. As discussed power and knowledge cannot operate as separate entities therefore they both play a part within the unitarism perspective. The employment relationship is also complex as it is the context within which interaction between employees and employers are conducted either individually or collectively (Rose, 2004).