HRM and collective bargaining HR Management

The early conceptual notion of HRM being focused upon, and only possible in, the unitary firm has not emerged in the modern British economy. In contemporary usage, HRM is employed as a set of strategic initiatives focused upon the employee with the aim of improving competitiveness, where any firm, depending on product and market demands, may utilise any number from a range of initiatives included under the HRM umbrella.

Yet, introducing and managing HRM practices in a collective bargaining environment does raise a number of contentious issues, primarily whether a series of initiatives aimed at the individual employee can be compatible within the collective approach. Overall, there is little evidence for the emergence of a strategic approach to managing labour in the UK economy (Mabey and Salamon, 1995) but it appears that HRM initiatives are more evident in unionised firms.

This can be taken as evidence that the two practices, HRM and collective bargaining, are not mutually exclusive (Mishel and Voos, 1992). Guest (1989) argues that the values underpinning HRM – strategic integration and the pursuit of quality – are not incompatible with collective representation where bargaining channels can be effectively utilised to introduce change. Recent evidence from the 1998 Employment Relations Survey found ‘high commitment management practices going hand in hand with a union presence’ and also found this to be the case for high-productivity firms (Cully et al., 1999: 294).

Storey (1989) argues that the two systems can coexist in harmony where HRM initiatives are focused upon areas which do not pose a threat to the scope of collective bargaining, or where they do not attempt to bypass established bargaining channels. Consequently, it is not axiomatic that if HRM initiatives are to be utilised, collective bargaining must be removed from the agenda; the critical issue here is the motivation for the introduction of HRM.

If individualised HRM practices are aimed at undermining union effectiveness, there is a real threat to existing procedures. However, if change is deployed after discussion and/or negotiation with existing unions, there is an opportunity for joint regulation of new working practices. This is not to argue that collective bargaining will be unaffected by the adoption of HRM. Storey (1992) found that while collective bargaining had become less of a management priority, new HRM practices and collective bargaining tended to exist as parallel arrangements.

The emphasis was upon reducing the union role rather than replacing it. It is apparent that the social partnership agenda will also impact upon the manner in which HRM initiatives are to be integrated into the organisation. It remains to be seen whether the development of partnership agreements in unionised firms will bring more HRM initiatives into the bargaining agenda or facilitate the growth of consultation channels.

Considering the issue of HRM and collective bargaining processes specifically, it appears that the former can coexist with the latter and indeed, HRM initiatives may be introduced through bargaining channels. In established plants, while HRM initiatives are evident, they have not seriously challenged the main focus of collective bargaining upon pay issues, but the scope of bargaining has been narrowed, with consultation being employed as a preferred channel of communication.

  • Summary

A number of bargaining initiatives emerged during the 1980s which have changed the level and structure of the collective bargaining process. These initiatives have facilitated the exercise of managerial prerogative in the bargaining relationship and further narrowed the scope of bargaining channels. Overall, where it persists, the collective bargaining function has remained intact but has been constrained in scope.


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