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The Thatcher and Reagan administrations led a shift towards more market oriented regulation of economies in the Anglo-American countries, including efforts to reduce the power of organized labor. In this paper, we examine the development of employment and labor law in six Anglo-American countries (the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand) from the Thatcher/Reagan era to the present. At the outset of the Thatcher/Reagan era, the employment and labor law systems in these countries could be divided into three pairings: the Wagner Act model based industrial relations systems of the United States and Canada; the voluntarist system of collective bargaining and strong unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland; and the highly centralized, legalistic Award systems of Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, such a historical perspective contradicts the idea that there has been a longstanding Anglo-American model of liberal market economic ordering as has sometimes been suggested, e.g. in the varieties of capitalism literature. However, looking at the current state of the employment relations systems in these six countries, we argue that there has been growing convergence in two major areas.

There has been a convergence in the area of labour rights toward private ordering of employment relations and away from the idea of work and employment being a matter subject to public ordering. By private ordering, we mean the idea that work and employment terms and conditions are primarily determined at the level of the individual organization, whether through collective bargaining between unions and employers at the organizational level, through individual negotiations, or through unilateral employer establishment of the terms and conditions of employment. The shift away from public ordering of work and employment is most dramatic in the cases of Australia and New Zealand, where the publicly established system of centralized Awards has given way to organizational level ordering of employment relations through workplace or individual level agreements. In the United Kingdom, the shift to greater private ordering is most evident in the breakdown of multi-employer collective bargaining, the weakening of industry wide standards enforced by strong unions, and the growth of nonunion representation at the enterprise level. By contrast, the much lesser degree of change in the labour rights area in North America reflects the historical situation that the Wagner Act model was from the outset a model built around the idea of private ordering. When we turn to the area of employment rights, we also see a convergence across the six Anglo-American countries toward a model in which the role of employment law is to establish a basket of minimum standards that are built into the employment relationship, which can then be improved upon by the parties.

Within these general trends, we do see some variation in the degree of convergence on these models of labour and employment rights regulation across the Anglo-American countries. The strongest degree of similarity in adoption of the private ordering in labour rights and the minimum standards basket in employment rights is found in four of the countries: Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and, with recent legislative changes, Australia. Each of these countries has adopted labour laws that favour organizational level economic ordering, but with reasonably substantial protections of trade union organizing and bargaining rights, and a set of minimum employment standards that includes similar sets of minimum wage, basic leave entitlements and unfair dismissal protections.

The first outlier in this study is Ireland. The Irish employment relations system stands out as the only one that has continued to have a significant degree of central coordination and public ordering of employment relations. Although there is substantial coordination at the central level, at the organizational level, the Irish system resembles the other Anglo-American countries much more closely, suggesting that it has the potential to evolve in a similar direction. The other outlier is the United States. Structurally its system is similar to the other Anglo-American countries in emphasizing private ordering in labour law and the role of employment law as being to establish a minimum basket of basic standards. However, where the United States diverges from the other countries is that its system has involved a general favouring of the interests of employers over those of employees and organized labour in the implementation of the model.


Suggested Citation
Colvin, A. J. S. & Darbishire, O. R. (2009). The emerging Anglo-American model: Convergence in industrial relations institutions? [Electronic version]. Paper presented at the 15th World Congress of the International Industrial Relations Association, Sydney, Australia.

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Copyright held by the authors.