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Protest against industrial relations reform in Melbourne (15 November 2005).
Industrial relations is a multidisciplinary field that studies the employment relationship. Industrial relations is increasingly being called employment relations or employee relations because of the importance of non-industrial employment relationships; this move is sometimes seen as further broadening of the human resource management trend. Indeed, some authors now define human resource management as synonymous with employee relations. Other authors see employee relations as dealing only with non-unionized workers, whereas labor relations is seen as dealing with unionized workers. Industrial relations studies examine various employment situations, not just ones with a unionized workforce. However, according to Bruce E. Kaufman "To a large degree, most scholars regard trade unionism, collective bargaining and labor-management relations, and the national labor policy and labor law within which they are embedded, as the core subjects of the field."
Initiated in the United States at end of the 19th century, it took off as a field in conjunction with the New Deal. However, it is generally a separate field of study only in English-speaking countries, having no direct equivalent in continental Europe. In recent times, industrial relations has been in decline as a field, in correlation with the decline in importance of trade unions, and also with the increasing preference of business schools for the human resource management paradigm.
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Industrial relations has three faces: science building, problem solving, and ethical. In the science building phase, industrial relations is part of the social sciences, and it seeks to understand the employment relationship and its institutions through high-quality, rigorous research. In this vein, industrial relations scholarship intersects with scholarship in labor economics, industrial sociology, labor and social history, human resource management, political science, law, and other areas.
Industrial relations scholarship assumes that labor markets are not perfectly competitive and thus, in contrast to mainstream economic theory, employers typically have greater bargaining power than employees. Industrial relations scholarship also assumes that there are at least some inherent conflicts of interest between employers and employees (for example, higher wages versus higher profits) and thus, in contrast to scholarship in human resource management and organizational behavior, conflict is seen as a natural part of the employment relationship. Industrial relations scholars therefore frequently study the diverse institutional arrangements that characterize and shape the employment relationship—from norms and power structures on the shop floor, to employee voice mechanisms in the workplace, to collective bargaining arrangements at company, regional, or national level, to various levels of public policy and labor law regimes, to "varieties of capitalism" (such as corporatism, social democracy, and neoliberalism).
When labor markets are seen as imperfect, and when the employment relationship includes conflicts of interest, then one cannot rely on markets or managers to always serve workers’ interests, and in extreme cases to prevent worker exploitation. Industrial relations scholars and practitioners therefore support institutional interventions to improve the workings of the employment relationship and to protect workers’ rights. The nature of these institutional interventions, however, differ...
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