industrial conflict

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industrial conflict A term which refers to all expressions of dissatisfaction within the employment relationship, especially those pertaining to the employment contract, and the effort bargain. The many different kinds of industrial conflict may be divided into two broad classes—informal and formal.

Informal industrial conflict is so labelled because it is not based on any systematic organization, results directly from a sense of grievance, and supposedly is wholly expressive in nature. Many forms of industrial sabotage which appear irrational would constitute industrial conflict in this sense, as would purely individualized and even unconscious forms of protest, including absenteeism, frequent job-changing, negligence, and even accidents at work. Industrial sociologists have also regarded spontaneous walk-outs and strikes as examples of informal industrial conflict, as well as the constant opposition to management expressed in workgroup norms regulating output, restrictive practices, secrecy, or other guarded treatment of superiors. The idea of informal industrial conflict thus draws attention to the roots of behaviour which may appear incomprehensible from the point of view of management. Used too widely, however, it loses its vigour.

Formal industrial conflict is reserved for organized expressions of conflict articulated through a trade-union or other worker representative. Its supposed purpose is strategic or instrumental rather than (or as well as) expressive and may often involve workers who, by themselves, have no feelings or personal involvement regarding the issues at stake in the dispute. Its characteristic form is the organized strike: that is, a withdrawal of labour such as to constitute a temporary breach of contract, using the collective strength of the workforce to avoid sanctions and achieve adjustments to pay or conditions of work. Strikes may be reinforced by other types of formal sanction such as the go-slow and work to rule. They may be confined to those directly affected or may take the form of sympathy strikes by workers in related jobs and industries. Strikes are deemed to be official if they have been called at the behest of the union leadership and in accordance with the law and with procedural collective-bargaining agreements. The term unofficial or ‘wildcat’ is applied to strikes waged through unrecognized leaders such as shop stewards, or by a non-recognized union, or in some other way which breaches established collective-bargaining laws and procedures. Obviously, there is not a clear distinction in practice between wildcat strikes and some of the more collective forms of unofficial conflict.

At one time there was much debate in industrial sociology about the term strike-proneness—epitomizing the search for structural causes of industrial conflict. Attempts were made to link patterns of strike activity with industry type, with the degree of isolation and class homogeneity of the work community, with the use of mass-production technologies, the bureaucratization of management, and the structuring of work groups. Though weak correlations have been found with some of these factors, the frequency and incidence of strikes and similar forms of unrest is so erratic that plenty of discrepant occurrences could be found. Economists have had some success linking long-term strike patterns to economic indicators but they, like other investigators in this mould, are hampered by the varying quality and scope of national and international strike statistics. The conclusions tend therefore to be pitched at a highly general level. A fundamental objection to such structural explanations is that the more overt forms of industrial conflict have to be socially organized as well as provoked. Hence, explanations of them have to bear in mind the strategic considerations perceived by workers and their leaders, as well as the meaning of industrial action, which can (and clearly does) vary greatly between industrial relations cultures. It is said, for example, that the wearing of red hats during work is as serious an expression of dissent in the Japanese context as a protracted strike is in the British.

The theoretical and case-study literature is vast. For a cogent summary see Stephen Hill , Competition and Conflict at Work (1981

conflict, industrial

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conflict, industrial See INDUSTRIAL CONFLICT.