Employment Relations and Trade Unions


Employment relations imply the country’s associations with its organizations, employers, and workers. Therefore, this subject generally involves the relationships between workers and their employers, between employees or themselves, and within their organizations (Budd & Bhave, 2019). In extension, it considers the functioning of trade unions concerning employment relations and the state in control of all of them. Trade unions are societies whose role is to maintain a good connection between the worker and the employer. They achieve that by negotiation, especially where payment is involved and working conditions have to be bargained. Consultations are also done on behalf of the workers regarding business matters. Generally, championing better terms and conditions of employment for the workers is the core business of trade unions.

Employment relations often get varying perceptions from different people depending on their points of view. For instance, some believe conflicts arise from class conflict; some perceive it as a combination of acts of cooperation, yet some perceive it as actions in different interests by different groups. There are basic frames of conceptualizing employment conflicts, each considering company vision, policy approaches, and advocacy styles (Kaufmann, 2016; Gold, 2021). In line with those schools of thought, three perspectives of industrial relations are borne- the unitary, pluralistic and radical.

Conflicts that Occur in the Employment Relationship

Conflict at the workplace is inevitable, for, in any employment relationship, differences arise. For various reasons, employees, employers, or trade unions could conflict within themselves or each other. The conflict could result from misunderstanding, communication disparities, duty allocation issues, discrimination, differing ideologies, personality-related, or several other factors. The disputes could also be task-based, leadership-oriented, methodology-related, or brought about by resource scarcity. It is often manifested in many forms, such as noncooperation, anger, insults, or managerial miscoordinations. According to Upchurch and Grassman (2016), unions may disintegrate internally due to communicative actions. From the preceding, conflicts at the workplace indeed occur for several causes; however, they can be reduced or even prevented.

Role of trade unions in managing conflicts

Trade unions play a significant role in managing employment-related conflicts. They are organizations based on workers’ membership they represent and bargain for. To aid their mandate, they are independent and run their affairs without interference. Essentially, they play an advisory role to their members concerning workplace issues. They also discuss with employers the terms and conditions of their workers whom they represent in business meetings. In addition, they negotiate with their members’ employers on improving work conditions and pay.

Trade unions are seen acting as an intermediary in the balance of power. They perform a negotiating and arbitrating role for their employee members (Williams, 2020). In a basic sense, trade unions mitigate workplace conflicts by ensuring peaceful conflict resolution rather than coercion, thus equipping employees with the tact of non-violent conflict management. Trade unions play a protective role, shielding workers from hiking wages. They ensure workers’ job security through diplomacy done through collective bargaining agreements. Moreover, trade unions guide the successful provision of a financial and non-monetary boost to employees during industrial actions or in situations of dire medical need.

Trade unions are advocates of equity at the workplace; they advocate for equality in rights and pay. They strongly condemn discrimination of employees at levels of race, disability, sexuality, or gender. Without trade unions’ presence and active role, employees globally could be suffering many inequities at their respective workplaces. Workplace dignity and respect of all is what they fight for; for example, they champion caring responsibilities, flexed working conditions, maternity rights, and other fundamental worker freedoms.

Role of trade unions and changing trends

Trade unions are indeed of great importance to enhanced civilized employment relations. Over the past century, trade unions have gained tremendous momentum, most notably in the 20th century. The unions’ modes of operation have also evolved within this period. Gasparri asserted that consultative unitarism and collaborative pluralism guide employment relations. The evolution is dependent on the three paradigms mentioned earlier- the unitary, radical, and pluralist perspectives.

The pluralists perceive conflict as a direct result of competing employee interests. The implication is that conflicts at the workplace are unavoidable since ideas will never match. In this sense, trade unions come in handy as the equilibrium. They are, thus, a source of balance in harmonizing employee interests. Trade unions also bring consensus and compromise in the conflicting interests of the workers, therefore, channeling all varying efforts towards a unitary goal. Italian trade unions are a paragon of this- they advocate for employee participation (Leonardi, 2016). In that sense, they acknowledge that employment relations are a unique system within the society where competing interests of employees are let to work in synergy in the production process.

Human resource management plays a vital role in ensuring employee participation. Managers have often used workers for their short-term gain, making workers disincentivized and, therefore, lowering employee productivity (Wilton, 2016). The pluralist perspective disagrees with the radical idea of class conflict’s essence to improve workers’ social welfare. Dandalt, Gasman and Goma (2020) conclude that cooperation is more necessary than conflict in wage labor negotiations. An adequately managed human resource, as advocated by trade unions, leads to avoidance of workplace conflict.

The unitary perspective sees trade unions as an addition to workplace conflicts, therefore, unnecessary in managing employment relations. The view leads to a belief that workers and employers all work in coordination with a common interest and united purpose, meaning employment relations are stable. Ideally, employment relations have teamwork and shared goals, thus, minimized conflict. However, in cases of misunderstanding and management problems, the trade unions collaborate to improve the respective organizational culture to ensure employees’ and employers’ functions are clearly defined.

Trade unions have also taken advantage of the radical perspective. In the radical view, conflict is seen to have an economic cause (Stöss, 2017). Employment relations are seen to be operating from a broader environment of society. The employees feel oppressed by their managers, who disregard their equal importance within the organization. Trade unions mend these disparities by fighting against discrimination and clearly stating workers’ rights and freedoms, thus ensuring fairness and justice at the workplace. The unions, therefore, restore peace and harmony in employment relations.

Trade unions faced impending demise towards the start of the 20th century. Watson (2018) observes that the role of trade union officers is watered down compared to their industrial management counterparts. Public institutions such as schools had also changed their systems of running. According to Stevenson (2019), school governance structures shifted from pluralist and collective bargaining to unitary public policy systems, threatening teacher unions. However, as Rakhimova & Kaishataeva (2020) assert, trade unions remain democratic, serving the interests of the workers in terms of labor protections and worker welfare improvement. The future of trade unions remains promising despite the various challenges they face in their mandate.

The power resources approach emerged as a trend taken by trade unions. The approach focuses on the importance and effectiveness of organized labor. Collective bargaining is encouraged, and the unitary approach is specially revamped. Current power resources are economically utilized and new ones developed (Schmalz, Ludwig, & Webster, 2018). Ideally, trade unions acknowledge that resources are diminished over time, thus, the essence of recreating more while conserving the current resource base.

Different approaches to trade unions

Trade unions use varying systems in their mandate to foster proper employment relations. The methods vary in nature and are generally derived from the three main perspectives of industrial relations. The unitary, pluralistic, and radical perspectives guide trade union operations in definition, determination, and conflict control. In essence, the views are a framework to guide the process of unions. For instance, the radical approach is on class conflict, the pluralistic approach is on diversity and competition, while the unitary approach is on cooperation.

The unitary approach is the first approach that trade unions employ. It is premised on the idea that authority in employment is from only one source- the management. The management makes most of the decisions, and has the most significant and most crucial stake in negotiations in employment cases. Trade unions are obliged to liaise with the management, which in turn accepts union conditions. Consequently, there is harmony which leads to minimized employer-employee trade-offs.

Trade unions also adopt the pluralistic approach when handling employment relations. The perspective holds that any organization comprises of different individuals in distinct groupings with individual objectives and ideologies. The result is that conflicts will be unending since the competing groups seek to promote and further their self-interests. However, the disputes are deemed logical, for there is never just one way of organizational operation; there has to be variety in schools of thought for efficiency to be achieved. Trade unions come in between management and employees while legitimately representing the interests of employees. They bring compromise between employer and employee, though, moderating the requirements of the employers. As considered by trade unions, the pluralist approach entails the use of conciliation and arbitration vis-à-vis coercion.

Trade unions equally influence the human resource management of organizations. According to Klerck (2018), proper human resource management ensures autonomy is regulated within organizations and that control is equally distributed between workers and their employers. They advocate for fairness and equitability in dispensing justice at the workplace (Bingham, 2016). Labor regulation further enables cooperation and cohesion at the workplace. Indeed, trade unions emphasize better personnel management within organizations and corporate entities.

Trade unions use the radical approach for sparking revolutionary change in organizational management and enhancing employment relations. Conflicts between employers and employees are inevitable since production and distribution are perceived to be for-profit, with the administration pursuing exorbitant control of all factors of production at the expense of worker interests. The radical approach proponents see organizational conflicts as a product of a capitalist society where there is a class conflict between managers and producers of means of production. According to Gall and Holgate (2018), the financialization of capitalism transfers risks to labor, thus, disadvantaging workers to a position of oppression. Workers mostly have only work to offer while the management owns and controls means of production, therefore, the competition. Trade unions seek to bridge the gap between employers and employees.

The other premise behind the radical approach is that conflict is necessary for any positive change. Social change produces effectiveness and reduces the gap between the owners and users of means of production; thus, radical change is the most fundamental resource for the proper functioning of the employment industry. Trade unions come as a middle ground to protect workers from capitalist exploitation and fountains of revolutionary social change. They essentially aim to improve the position of employees within the capitalist structure.

The radical approach goes parallel with the unitary and pluralistic systems. Whether through industrial relations tribunals or legislative mechanisms, the state intervention on employment conflicts collaborates with the respective management rather than balancing power relations between working and worker classes. The pluralists, on the contrary, find state intervention as necessary to solving employment relation conflicts. Trade unions using a radical approach oppose a pluralistic approach because it supports capitalism which barely has workers’ interests at heart. The radical approach believes in coercion and is totally against measures such as enterprise bargaining, cooperation, modified organizational culture, and employee participation. According to Heery (2016), for trade unions taking a radical approach, the initiatives mentioned earlier are not purposed to improve worker welfare but reinforce the capitalist system by supporting only the management’s interests.

There has been a widespread transition of employment relations, from collective pluralistic worker participation and industrial democracy to organizational management-union relationship to non-union employee representation (NER), and finally to worker engagement. According to Dobbins, Hughes & Dundon (2021), case studies of union systems in the United Kingdom and Ireland show that pluralistic ideals are the least practical. Nevertheless, cooperation as a style of advocacy is more robust in Northern Europe and Nordic states where more equality of opportunity exists.

Trade unions have been working on bettering workplace harmony; they employ workplace mediation. Workplace mediation entails handling workplace conflict between individuals by involving a mediator as a third party to compromise for the parties involved. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) is an organization that has effectively used workplace mediation (Branney, 2020). Indeed, workplace mediation fosters peace and harmony at the workplace. The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) employs the radical approach, illustrating the necessity of workers in employment having power. Most of its members are from communist states, majorly those of the former Soviet Union (Nkosi, 2021). On the other hand, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is a union of worldwide trade unions taking a stand of collective pluralism.


The concept of employment relations has been, for so long, a topic of concern to many scholars and researchers. In simple terms, employment relations are the connections between employers and employees. Trade unions have been at the forefront in fostering good employment relations, especially in managing employment conflicts. They have adopted various mechanisms to ensure their mandate of catering to workers’ welfare is well organized. The approaches considered are the unitary, radical, and pluralist approach.

The classical approaches- radical, unitary, and pluralist perspectives- have been taken and improvised by trade unionists in their employee rights advocacy and championing methodologies. The radical approach looks at conflicts in the workplace to be emanating from economic class struggles, with employers being the owners and managers of means of production. Employers are seen to oppress workers, usually by disadvantaging them, to retain control over managerial processes and power advantages. Trade unions, thus, feel conflict and revolution are the two prerequisites for desired social change. The other approach taken by trade unions is the pluralistic approach, whose premise is that the workplace entails various people forming distinct groups with differing interests whose individual aims are competing. Trade unions take advantage of that to encourage competition at the workplace and vibrance of employees.

A third approach taken by trade unions is the unitary approach. As per this approach, the workplace is a harmonious and peaceful place. Ideally, trade unios using this approach conceptualize that employers and employees all have one common goal, thus, hardly any conflicts. Trade unions liaise with the respective management teams to ensure adequate cooperation between the employers and employees. Furthermore, trade unions revamp ailing organizational structures to ensure effective coordination of tasks and responsibilities, minimizing workplace conflicts.

In the wake of modernity and globalization, trade unions have evolved from traditional modes of operation to re-established ones. Workplace mediation and the power resources approach are examples of newly-adopted strategies of trade unions. The workplace mediation method involves using a mediator in workplace conflicts where individuals have conflicting interests that lead to a stand-off. Trade union representatives act as the required arbiter in industrial relations conflicts. Middleton (2017) asserts that trade unions could have more impact if they adequately manage job resources and ensure the wholesome engagement of trade union representatives.

Trade unions have a crucial role to play in conflict resolution, especially at the employer-employee level. Conflicts at the workplace are unavoidable since the interests and ideologies of the various workplace stakeholders will always vary. Essentially, they stem from varying reasons- some from differing personalities, ideologies, leadership styles; some from misunderstandings and communication problems. The trade unions represent the employees in meeting with their employers, with whom they bargain to appoint of compromise. They also protect workers from injustice. In addition, they advise the workers on having their remuneration well-utilized to a level of ultimate sustainability. Indeed, trade unions have played the most significant role in managing employment relations at their peak.


Almendros Viladerrams, F. (2021). Evaluating whether the Gig economy is transforming the nature of employment relations. The industrial relations challenges within the digital platform economy in the 21st.

Bingham, C. (2016). Employment relations: fairness and trust in the workplace. Sage.

Branney, V. E. (2020). Workplace mediation and trade unions: Friends or foes? A study of UK trade unions’ attitudes and experiences (Doctoral dissertation, University of Central Lancashire)

Budd, J. W., & Bhave, D. P. (2019). The employment relationship: Key elements, alternative frames of reference, and implications for HRM. The Sage handbook of human resource management.

Dandalt, E., Gasman, M., & Goma, G. (2020). The union behavior of young workers in the education industry. Personnel Review.

Dobbins, T., Hughes, E., & Dundon, T. (2021). ‘Zones of contention’ in industrial relations: Framing pluralism as praxis. Journal of Industrial Relations, 63(2), 149-176.

Gall, G., & Holgate, J. (2018). Rethinking industrial relations: Appraisal, application, and augmentation.

Gasparri, S. (2021). Framing work and welfare: Insights from the growing relevance of company welfare in Italy.” Journal of Industrial Relations, 63(2). 235-262.

Gold, M. (2021). ‘Frames of reference’ in Victorian England: What Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South reveals about perceptions of the employment relationship. Journal of Industrial Relations, 63(2), 126-148.

Heery, E. (2016). Framing work: unitary, pluralist, and critical perspectives in the twenty-first century. Oxford University Press.

Kaufman, B. E. (2016). Experience with company unions and their treatment under the Wagner act: A four frames of reference analysis. Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, 55(1), 3-39.

Klerck, G. (2018). Industrial relations and human resource management. In Human Resource Management (pp. 311-334). Routledge.

Leonardi, S. (2016). Employee participation and involvement: the Italian case and trade union issues. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 22(1), 81-99.

Middleton, M. (2017). The impact of job demands and job resources on the burnout and engagement of trade union representatives (Doctoral dissertation, Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch University).

Nkosi, A. (2021). Social dialogue is the key to fostering trade union participation in recovery and resilience in Africa. Equal Times.

Rakhimova, A. M., & Kaishataeva, A. K. (2020). The role of trade unions as a subject of social partnership in the settlement of labor disputes. Journal of Advanced Research in Law and Economics, 11, 967.

Schmalz, S., Ludwig, C., & Webster, E. (2018). The power resources approach: Developments and challenges. Global Labour Journal, 9(2).

Stevenson, H. (2019). Understanding schools as organizations and the role of organized teachers: Perspectives on teachers’ work and teacher unions. The SAGE Handbook of School Organization, 376-389

Stöss, R. (2017). Trade unions and right-wing extremism in Europe. Berlin, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

Upchurch, M., & Grassman, R. (2016). Striking with social media: The contested (online) terrain of workplace conflict. Organization, 23(5), 639-656.

Watson, D. H. (2018). Managers of discontent: Trade union officers and industrial relations managers. Routledge.

Williams, S. (2020). Introducing employment relations: A critical approach. Oxford University Press.

Wilton, N. (2016). An introduction to human resource management. Sage.

Find out your order's cost