[Excerpt] This text deals with issues that, traditionally, have appeared under labels such as ‘industrial relations’, ‘human resource management’ and ‘employee relations’. It adopts ‘employment relations’ as its title for two main reasons. The first is that it accurately describes what the text is about – it’s about the employment relationship, the institutions involved in its ‘governance’ and the impact on a wide range of economic and social outcomes. The second is that it’s increasingly difficult to use the traditional labels without causing confusion. Regardless of intention, ‘industrial relations’ is associated with trade unions, collective bargaining and strikes, while 'human resource management' and 'employee relations' are seen as being about managing relations with individual employees. It also seems that there is to be no meeting on the ideological plain – ‘industrial relations’ is assumed to be conflict-based, while ‘human resource management’ and ‘employee relations’ are said to be ‘unitarist’ and ‘managerialist’ in their approach. Meanwhile, ever-increasing fragmentation means that the area’s overall significance gets lost sight of.
The text has the double intention that I’ve tried to capture in the title: to bring people up to date with the matters that the study of employment relations deals with and to explain why they matter. Trade unions and collective bargaining certainly feature – collective bargaining remains the dominant way of settling the pay and conditions of employment of employees in many EU countries; the same is true of the six million or so public sector employees in the UK. Employment relations is far from being just about trade unions and collective bargaining, however. It is also about work organisation – the nature and extent of managerial hierarchies and control structures, which have profound implications for health, personal development and a country's social capital stock; personnel policies and practices, which are critical not just for business performance, but also income levels, life chances, the family (the duration, distribution and flexibility of working time are especially important here) and the development of human and social capital (reflecting not just the nature and extent of continuing vocational training but also the opportunities for on-the-job learning and personal development); and the decisions of government and the judiciary (reflecting the state’s role as ‘guarantor of the employment relationship’). It is no exaggeration to say that many of the objectives policy makers subscribe to – ending child poverty, enhancing the quality of family life, improving health, increasing social mobility and building a knowledge economy – depend to a very large extent on the quality of employment relations.