Labour relations, or industrial relations as it is known in Britain, is the interdisciplinary and somewhat diffuse study of the institutions and rule-fixing processes of the labour-market. Its core subject-matter has always been collective bargaining between trade unions or analogous organizations of employees, on one hand, and employers and their associations on the other. A widening of scope has been evident for some years however, as a result of the need to put dealings between organized labour and employers into their legal, historical, economic, political, and sociological contexts. The term ‘employee relations’, found increasingly in management writing, was once a synonym for industrial relations; it now usually denotes parts of the field in which management-trade union relationships either play a smaller role or are argued to be inappropriate.
Differences in definition derive partly from the fact that, despite a long history of academic investigation, no single disciplinary core has yet emerged in descriptions and explanations of industrial relations behaviour. Today, therefore, work in the subject includes the following: historical and contemporary aspects of the law of labour contract; the difference in theory and practice between wage-fixing by negotiated rules as opposed to competitive or free-market processes; reasons for state involvement in labour relations together with historical and contemporary aspects of the politics of employer-employee bargaining; the normative basis of wage differentials and wage negotiation; historical and contemporary causes of industrial conflict and its relation to class conflict; the relationships between the organized and unorganized sectors of the labour-force; labour-market segmentation and dualism; the relationship of employment and wage policy to social policy; training, skill, and unemployment.
Sociologists, historians, economists, psychologists, lawyers, and others continue to make contributions, often with scant regard for each other. In recent years the notion of industrial relations systems (J. T. Dunlop, Industrial Relations Systems, 1958, and T. A. Kochan et al., The Transformation of American Industrial Relations, 1986) has been regarded as bringing a degree of unity into studies of the field. Critics of the notion argue that it is incomplete, unhelpfully static in conception, and too broad in scope to be more than a classification device with little or no explanatory power. See also labour process; personnel management; trust and distrust.