The British system of industrial relations has frequently been described as voluntarist, by which is usually meant the abstention of the state from direct intervention in the handling of industrial relations. This principle of abstention can be seen most clearly in the traditionally small volume of law affecting industrial relations; indeed, voluntarism has also been described as legal abstentionism. But it is more than that, for in addition to legal abstention, voluntarism also rests on the principle of the primacy of voluntary action in industrial relations. Voluntarism has never been absolute and, in the 1980s in particular, there are good reasons for asking if it is still an appropriate characterisation of the British system of industrial relations. But until the 1970s it was defended by unions, employers and the state, not least on the grounds that agreements reached through voluntary means were likely to be more stable and long-lasting than those imposed through state intervention.
There have for many decades been laws affecting aspects of industrial relations, in particular legislation dealing with issues of health and safety , the protection of particular groups of workers, such as young persons, and the whole area of social security legislation, but key aspects of industrial relations were unaffected by law. Most important, collective agreements were, and remain, unenforceable at law; they are, in the time-honoured phrase, "binding in honour only", despite occasional efforts to change this. In addition, the law kept distant from regulating trade union behaviour and activity, most especially with respect to strikes and other forms of industrial action (see immunities ).
At least as important a feature of voluntarism was the insistence by its advocates on the primacy of voluntary collective bargaining as the preferred method of industrial regulation. The emphasis of industrial relations policy under such a model is on the development of the institutions of collective bargaining by means other than direct state intervention. One clear example of the way in which the state sets a lead in this is its own encouragement of union recognition and of extending collective bargaining within publicly owned industries (see public sector ). Not that there was no legal regulation of terms and conditions of employment; the establishment of Trade Boards, later renamed Wages Councils , to fix minimum terms and conditions of employment in industrial sectors where workers were unable to develop collective protections and were being heavily exploited is the clearest example of intervention. Even here, however, the eventual intention was always their replacement with free collective bargaining.
Finally, even within the voluntarist model, the state has for many decades provided access to independent means of dispute resolution, through its provision of conciliation and arbitration services, most recently through ACAS. Criticism of the voluntary system developed through the 1960s, partly in response to what was perceived as a growing wave of forms of disruptive industrial action. The Donovan Commission provided a qualified defence of voluntarism, defending the primacy of voluntary collective bargaining. Since then government policies on incomes control and, more specifically, the growing volume of industrial relations legislation have called the voluntarist system into question. Even the unions, the staunchest defenders of the system, have started to discuss the need for a framework of positive legal rights for trade unions and their members.
Please note: the European industrial relations glossaries were compiled between 1991 and 2003 and are not updated. For current material see the European industrial relations dictionary.