Pluralist Theory of Trade Unions: Factors and its Criticism

Read this article to learn about the pluralist theory of Trade Unions and its criticism!

The Pluralist Theory is in some ways the opposite of the Systems Theory. It stresses on decentralisation of power.

The basic premise is that there are competing social forces, which have to be accepted by all; only then can they avoid chaos in the system. Pluralism is a combination of British liberalism and the views of Durkheim on ethics, values and social justice.

In Theory There Is No Difference Between Theory And Practice. In ...

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The Systems Theory had stressed on functional stability. The power structure was oriented from the top, just like in a bureaucracy; pluralism, on the other hand, is opposed to absolute domination by either management or labour for it recognises that unregulated behaviour will lead to chaos. It suggests that there must be a system of competing social forces which prevent total dominance and thereby helps avoid chaos.

This theory is influenced by Durkheim in some ways. These factors are:

(i) Significance of ethics, values and social justice as opposed to coercive integration:

The Systems Theory and Pluralist Theory both believe in an integrated industrial relations systems. However, the difference between the two is that while the Systems Theory stresses integration as a vital principle, pluralism emphasises the ethical basis of participation. In case this is missing, integration will be through coercive means. Such a form of integration is self-defeating.

(ii) Division of labour as a cardinal force in shaping social evolution:


Division of labour in industry should be based on ethics and values. Pluralism lays stress on the fact that conflict is essential for maintaining the system, and open conflict can be tackled or regulated through mediation. Flanders (1970), one of the founders of the theory of Pluralism, had emphasised the ethical basis of rule making.

This emerges through conflict and the struggles of trade unions. It is not something given by the management through mutual consultation as asserted by the Systems Theory. For example, the benefits granted to workers such as health facilities, leave with pay, protection of employment and post-retirement benefits were achieved because of concerted movements/struggles of workers under the leadership of their trade unions.

The demands, which later became rules, were regularised through workers’ struggles and not through the benevolence of the management or generosity of the state. Both the management and the state regularised these measures because of pressure from the union. By fighting for the rights of the workers, the trade union protects their status and their self- respect. This, the Pluralists believe, leads to decentralisation of decision-making.

The Pluralist Theory holds that trade unions help in introducing order in industry. Labour and management keep checks on each other and together they construct rules and institutions for regulating conflict.

Trade union behaviour is influenced by institutional interests of the organisation: this includes the survival and growth of the organisation and the long-term view of its members’ interests:

(i) Economic environment and market conditions:

If the market is positive, trade unions will press for greater demands. The economic environment too is important. Both together contribute to the nature of labour unrest.

(ii) Political Environment:

This shows that industrial relations are not restricted only to interactions between labour and management for the political environment plays a role as well. If the state is indifferent to the problems of labour, it may lead to two types of action. Trade unions may shy away from confronting the government, or they may take up a confrontational stand and intensify their struggles for protecting the rights of labour. On the other hand, if the state is pro-labour, unions may become more active as they may feel that even if the employer takes a harsh stand and is hostile, the state will come to their rescue.

(iii) Technology and production:

Technology is an important factor in influencing economic and social relations. Technological change is the key to changes in the organisation of work and in the increase of production. The trade union has to take this into account and see how best the interests of the workers are protected.

Technological changes may lead to layoffs as some workers may become redundant, while others, who retain their work, may be redeployed. The union needs to discuss all these issues with the management. A lot depends on the stand of the management and that of the union. If either of them opposes the other, it could lead to labour unrest.

Unions may resist new technology because it displaces labour, whereas management wants new technology because it is more efficient and thus cost-effective. If the union takes a rigid stand that is opposed to new technology and will not allow it at any cost, it could resist the change for some time. However, sooner or later, this technology will be introduced and at that time, the union will not be consulted for redeployment.

The workers will lose out because their problems will remain unattended. Many unions, especially the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in UK, decided not to oppose new technology blindly. The TUC prepared a checklist which was followed by its member unions. The issues are many and complicated.

If there is retrenchment, who should be retrenched—the senior workers or the new ones? If seniors are retrenched, the union can fight for a better compensation package. The younger workers could be redeployed in other sections. Hence, the key to settling problems is negotiations and not confrontation, at least in the initial phase.

(iv) Accepted social norms and cultural values:

This means that Industrial Relations (IR) and trade union behaviour should function within a socially accepted framework, which can differ between social environments. In some countries such as France and Brazil, where trade unions are more militant than in, say, Britain, employers would expect militant trade unionism and would be prepared for its consequences.


Though the Pluralist Theory critiques the Systems Theory as being static and not taking into account the informal organisation, it too has been critically assessed because of some shortfalls.

(i) A significant criticism of the Pluralist theory is that it assumed the power of all parties to be equal. This is not correct. The power of the workers does not equal that of the employers, which means that the bargaining power of the unions is lower than that of the employers. Equal power on both sides would presume that bargaining would be on equal terms.

Pluralism has somehow based its analysis on this misconception. For example, if relations between the union and management turn sour, and the union declares a strike, this could express the power of the union. At the same time, if the employers are adamant and refuse to negotiate, the workers may be put to hardship as their ability to exist without wage or work is limited.

Similarly, if the workers refuse to negotiate with the employers or the state, the strike may continue and it would test the staying power of both sides in coming to a settlement. In April 1981, workers in the textile industry of Bombay (now Mumbai) numbering about 2, 50,000 went on a strike that continued for eighteen months. This was the longest strike involving the largest number of workers. However, apart from breaking records, the strike achieved little else.

The workers had to lose because the employers were able to withstand the pressure for a longer period. An aspect of this issue of equal power is that there is an assumption that the state is neutral, which is far from the truth. In most cases of conflict between labour and management, especially the major ones, the state does not play a role in supporting one side or the other. In very few cases does it support the employees?

The textile strike mentioned above was successful for the employers mainly because of the support it got from the state. This gave a boost to the employers not to negotiate with the union on basic issues. In fact the most important issue for the workers was de­recognition of their representative union, namely, the Rashtriya Mill Mazdur Sangh (RMMS).

Workers, especially the younger ones, had accused this union of not representing their interests and conniving with the employers in affecting the interests of textile mill workers adversely. Though an overwhelming majority of workers supported the strike which was initiated by a rival union, Maharashtra Girni Kamgar Union, neither the state nor the employers were willing to give in to their demand. The union was affiliated to INTUC which in turn is close to the ruling Congress Party which was in power in the state.

(ii) Pluralism does not take into account the material basis of conflict. Conflicts are not cultural or based on social prejudices but go much deeper. Social or cultural factors can be overcome and bridged but it is more difficult to resolve the material basis of conflict. The opposing interests of labour and capital are particularly difficult to bridge.

Capital insists on profits, which can be achieved by increasing the pressure on labour to produce more. Labour, on the other hand, would like to decrease the workload and get more leisure time besides increasing wages. These objectives are opposed to each other. For example, if a firm wants to decrease prices of its products so that it can sell more, it will try to reduce labour costs or increase its productivity, both of which would result in sacrifices by workers, who might argue that if the firm reduces profit margins it could cut prices. The labourers’ argument will run thus: why should we make sacrifices when we do not gain anything?

The above-mentioned are the fundamental differences between labour and capital which can be resolved for a short period of time but cannot be overcome. Despite this, pluralism stresses more on institutionalisation of conflict. This, the critics argue, actually results in trade unions being co-opted by management.

(iii) Pluralism lays stress on rules governing employment. Each organisation has its own source of authority and this leads to conflict as each applies pressure to persuade the other to make concessions. This is not restricted to industrial organisation but also to the wider political sphere, such as the state.

(iv) The nature of society is not considered, as the focus is on groups and their influences from within and without. Groups may be pressurised so as not to use full resources and there could be political pressures too. The nature of the political arena and the role of the state in shaping the boundaries are not considered.

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