What Are the Different Theories of Industrial Relations?

by Quentin Coleman ; Updated September 26, 2017
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Industrial relations describes the complex, ever-changing relationship between industry management and its employees. There are several mainstream theories of industrial relations, each casts employee unions and business management with differing responsibilities and functions.

Three Main Theories

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There are four primary theories of industrial relations: unitarist, pluralist, Marxist and radical. These theories emphasize (or dismiss) different elements of the industrial relations process and/or function, depending on the values and standards venerated by the philosophy.

Unitarist Theory


The unitarist theory of industrial relations emphasizes the co-dependency of employers and employees. To a unitarist, an organization is an integrated, friendly and collaborative whole.

Unitarists do not favor employee unions. They believe that loyalty to such an organization would detract from employee loyalty to a company (disrupting the bond between employer and employees).

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Pluralist Theory

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Pluralist theory emphasizes the representative function of management and trade unions, and it reinforces the value (and legitimacy) of collective bargaining.

Pluralists recognize organizations within management and within unions as legitimate. They believe that management's primary function is to coordinate, communicate and persuade, rather than control or demand.

Radical Theory

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Not to be confused with Marxist theory, radical theory sees industrial relations as a necessary (but not ideal) result of employees protecting themselves from powerful big-business.

Radicals believe that profit-hungry corporations have no regard (aside from legal obligations) for their employees, and are willing to profit off of them at any available opportunity.

Marxist Theory

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The Marxist theory of industrial relations claims that capitalism breeds corruption and greed, leaving the employee to suffer while corporations rake in profits.

Marxists claim that institutions would be far better employers if run as state organizations, while compensation would be standardized to promote a co-operative, non-competitive work environment.

About the Author

Quentin Coleman has written for various publications, including All Pet News and Safe to Work Australia. He spent more tan 10 years nursing kittens, treating sick animals and domesticating semi-feral cats for a local animal shelter. He graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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