Management-union partnerships are rare in Ireland

There is little evidence that Irish employers have moved to establish partnership arrangements with trade unions for the handling of workplace change. According to research published in 1998, unions would seem to be exercising considerably less influence in the Irish workplace than might have been assumed. Collective bargaining is confined in the main to areas where unions would have been involved traditionally - changes in pay, working practices and working hours. Employers' preferred approach for introducing change is through management prerogative and, to a lesser extent, through direct employee involvement.

Recent findings from the National survey of employee relations and human resource practices in Ireland ("Workplace partnership and employee involvement in Irish workplaces", William K Roche and John F Geary, CEROP Working Paper No. 26, Graduate School of Business, University College Dublin, forthcoming (1998)) reveal that the incidence of workplace partnership arrangements between employers and trade unions are rare. Use of managerial prerogative would seem to be the predominant mechanism for handling workplace change.

The survey, which was conducted by the Centre for Employment Relations and Organisational Performance at the Graduate School of Business, University College Dublin (UCD) was conducted in the last six months of 1996 and in the first six months of 1997. A total effective sample of 450 workplaces was achieved. The survey respondent was the most senior designated manager at workplace level who had responsibility for human resource management. The study's population was defined as all commercial private and publicly owned workplaces, excluding construction, employing more than 20 persons. (Earlier findings from the survey are reported in IE9805118F)

The findings of the study

The study found evidence of considerable change in the Irish workplace in the five years preceding the UCD survey. For instance, 89% of workplaces had made changes in the numbers employed and 85% had changed pay levels. Close on 80% had introduced new products or services, or established and identified new ways of attaining business targets; three-quarters of establishments had introduced new plant and technology; and over 60% had made changes to working time arrangements and working practices and introduced new employee involvement initiatives. Payment systems and promotional structures and criteria were revised and altered in nearly half of all workplaces.

Where workplaces had introduced workplace change, respondents were asked to indicate from a list of four options which approach they had adopted. The four means of handling workplace change were: management prerogative; collective bargaining; partnership with trade unions; and direct employee involvement.

The results point in general to a fairly complex and mixed picture, summarised below.

  • While collective bargaining continues to play a role in unionised workplaces, its presence is considerably less than one might have assumed a priori. Apart from changing pay levels and, to a lesser extent, changes in payment systems and working time arrangements, collective bargaining was not used to any great extent in the management of workplace change.
  • There is considerable evidence of innovation and experimentation with new forms of workplace governance - direct employee involvement and workplace partnership - alongside the presence of trade unions and collective bargaining. To this extent, employers would seem to see value in introducing workplace change in fora outside of the negotiating arena of collective bargaining.
  • This finding is of obvious significance in a country whose traditional system of industrial relations was characterised by collective bargaining. It would suggest that there is a clear preference amongst unionised employers to introduce change not through collective bargaining, but by adopting alternative approaches. This preference is further confirmed in employers' response as to how they might introduce workplace change over the course of the next five years. This predilection for avoiding collective bargaining must not be confused, however, with an employer resistance to trade union involvement in the management of workplace change. The estimates for the incidence of partnership and for its likely increase in the future - although modest - would suggest otherwise.
  • Direct employee involvement has diffused far more widely in unionised Irish workplaces than partnership approaches.
  • Innovation around workplace partnership arrangements is confined to a minority of unionised workplaces, although there is evidence that its diffusion is likely to increase over coming years.
  • The areas over which partnership arrangements were used to handle change were typically close to the "wage-effort bargain" (ie pay levels, pay systems, working time and working practices). These would have been areas over which unions would have traditionally exercised some influence. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that the coverage of union-management partnerships has expanded outside these narrow confines to include a broader array of decisions and, in particular, issues of a more strategic nature.
  • That employers have established partnership arrangements with trade unions would suggest that unions have been willing to work constructively with workplace restructuring.
  • Alongside those many employers which are willing to involve employees and their representatives in workplace change, and think it necessary to secure their commitment to management's goals, there are many more which, it would seem, are more concerned to assert their right to manage. To this extent, there are strong indications that management prerogative is deeply embedded in Irish workplaces and that employers seem likely to exercise this level of authority into the future.
  • This finding must not however be taken to suggest that there is some crude form of "macho management" at work in Ireland. The data does not support such a stark picture. The assertion of management's "right to management" - equally pronounced in unionised and non-unionised workplaces - is certainly evident in a number of areas of workplace change. That is, management has been defining "the logic of the market" and has been stipulating the appropriate response.

Commentary

In summary, the data, for unionised workplaces at least, demonstrate quite clearly that there is a preference amongst Irish employers to regulate the workplace either through unilateral managerial control or through direct employee involvement. Outside of changes to pay levels, payment systems and working time arrangements, collective bargaining was not commonly used. Workplace partnership arrangements were most commonly used when introducing changes in working practices, but even here they were adopted in only a fifth of workplaces. In most other areas of introducing change, partnership arrangements were considerably less prevalent. They were rarely, if ever, adopted in strategic areas of management decision-making. In place of representative forms of employee participation, management would seem to be showing a clear preference for introducing change through mechanisms which allow for the direct involvement of employees or, more commonly, to exclude any forms of employee participation and to maintain management's freedom and right to manage as it might see fit.

It might have been expected that the recent interest in developing cooperative labour management relations in place of the adversarialism often associated with "old industrial relations" in general, together with the social partners' efforts to facilitate social partnership at workplace level through the Partnership 2000 national agreement in particular (IE9702103F), would have encouraged the development of partnership arrangements in the Irish workplace to a significant degree. While this survey has no data on trends, it does demonstrate that, even when a relatively broad definition of partnership is adopted, its incidence is confined to a small number of workplaces and to date, at least, it remains a minority practice. (John Geary, Graduate School of Business, UCD)

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