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union renewal


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A theory of change in trade unions formulated by IR theorist, Peter Fairbrother, to analyse recent developments in the public sector. The essence of the theory is a claim that two developments are prompting the emergence of a more vital and participative workplace unionism in public sector organizations. These are the decentralization of bargaining, which gives union members the opportunity to participate, and the intensification of management control, which is providing an incentive to participate. The thesis has been subject to a variety of criticisms. Researchers have questioned whether renewal is in fact taking place and studies of local industrial relations in the public sector have shown quiescent and ineffective workplace trade unionism. Others have pointed to the fact that key innovations in unions often arise above the workplace and may be resisted at local level, that is, renewal in at least some circumstances may be a top-down phenomenon. It has also been argued that the thesis rests on unrealistic assumptions about the potential for unions to involve and mobilize their members and that it ignores the disadvantages of a fragmented and decentralized structure of bargaining. The latter include increased earnings inequality and greater opportunity for employers to escape altogether from collective bargaining.

Subjects: Human Resource Management.


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