BUIRA Conference 2018: The return of politics to employment relations (27 to 29 June 2018)

Middlesex University

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BUIRA Conference 2018: The return of politics to employment relations, Middlesex University.





Howell (2005) observes that the emergence of the “third system of industrial relations” in the UK – from 1979 - is one that, among the institutional issues, removed employment relations as a high profile political issue in public life. While the Winter of Discontent made industrial relations the primary political national issue in the 1979 general election, by the time the Employment Relations Bill was being debated in 1998-9 it attracted low key media or even parliamentary attention.  If the neoliberal age has been one which has institutionally sidelined the notion of collective worker representation, it has also been one that has attempted to ideologically individualise the employment relationship into a market transactional one.

In 2017, the situation seems to have changed. The underlying ideological predisposition that the employment relationship is a consensual voluntary market transaction is a lot less certain among a significant proportion of working people who instead see unfairness and futility.  In the UK, while unemployment is relatively low, ‘underemployment’ and the perceptions of insecurity, precarity, ‘bad jobs’ and inequality are high.  Similar tensions are reported across the developed world.  These changes could be partly the longer-term consequence of the global financial crisis of 2007/8, of global and national austerity or of the way in which globalisation has affected jobs in adjusting the global north to the global south. The politics surrounding the (un)fairness of the system governing work and employment are now acute and are beginning to challenge the assumptions underpinning key institutions governing the system as a whole. 

It is difficult to pin an exact location for this ‘disruption’ but its manifestations are evident. While workplace collective bargaining remains dormant outside the shrunken domains of public sector and established large employers, the levels of discontent among the ‘unorganised’ are growing. This includes legal and small scale collective challenges to practices associated with the ‘gig economy’ (a prominent theme discussed at BUIRA 2017); and the return of industrial relations policy as a contested ideological agenda at national level politics (with Labour now championing trade union rights and the Conservative government seeming to need to address perceptions of unfairness with a more paternalist reform agenda on issues such as corporate governance and pay inequality.  The Conservatives’ apparent change of direction is of particular interest as it seems to mark an important symbolic break with the cornerstone principle of laissez-faire market individualism that has underpinned government policy since Thatcher in 1979.

Such re-politicisation of work and employment has not just been a UK phenomenon. The Trump phenomenon in the US, with its rhetoric of protectionism and anti-immigration, has also arguably been based on a populist challenge to the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy of open markets. .  In France the direction seems to be equal and opposite: the reforming Macron government seems intent on market-based reforms to labour laws more in line with the neoliberal agenda falling out of favour elsewhere.

Although we welcome papers that concern any area of industrial relations, theoretical contributions in relation to the changes we’re observing in the relationship between politics and employment are particularly welcome, as well as papers concerning topics under the following headings:

The call for papers is open until 16th FEBRUARY 2018.

 BUIRA conference abstract template


Brief Outline: (100 words)

Methodology: (150 words)

Key findings: (250 words)