Systems Theory of Trade Unions Formulated by John Dunlop

Read this article to learn about the systems theory of trade unions, its four sub-systems and criticism!

The Systems Theory was put forth by John Dunlop. He developed the theory on the functionalist model, and the thrust was on maintaining industrial stability.

Dunlop’s basic contention was that both parties—employers/management and labour—want stability and they want industry to prosper, and this is beneficial for all.

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The Systems Theory emphasised the internal properties of trade unions and the mechanisms that maintain stability. Dunlop adopted the structural-functionalist model of Parsons, who stressed that components in any social structure (in this case, the industrial structure) performed functions that contributed to maintaining stability in the structure.

According to Parsons, the notion of stability is not merely a shared belief of management and workers. He stresses that stability involves a complex set of functions which when acting together can achieve the shared common goal of stability and integration. He noted that there were four sub-systems corresponding to four functional imperatives, in the form of Adaptation, Goal Gratification, Integration and Latent Pattern Maintenance (AGIL). Let us examine each one of these in detail.

1. Adaptation:

Adaptation to the industrial way of life is crucial for successful functioning of industry. The industrial environment requires a new set of norms based on the changed social values. Adaptation as a functional pre-requisite deals with how unions and management take to the industrial system.

An important way of maintaining stability in the organisation is through rule making. Rules lead to regulation of behaviour and they also facilitate maintaining stability. The Systems Theory looks at rules in the same manner as the functional theorists assume that norms set the basis for social behaviour.


In functionalism, social values determine the norms, while in industrial society, the new values that emerge are the basis of rule making. Hence, rules in industrial relations are those norms that are needed for maintaining peace and stability in the industrial system.

For Systems theorists, rules are mutually agreed instruments. The theory does not delve into how rules came into being but presumes that rules are an outcome of the need for all parties in the industrial system to want stability. There could be different categories of rules.

Some rules dealing with relations between management and labour could be based on the expected behaviour of the two sides in the industrial system. These rules follow the guidelines set for interaction between labour and management. For example, there could be problems relating to labour; if the management is prudent, it will set aside one day in a week or month when these problems are discussed with the union.

The problems from the workers’ side could relate to issues regarding work or wages; the workload in a section may be high, or workers in another section may have been redeployed and they have problems or the shift timings may not be suitable to some.


From the management’s side, there could be issues relating to falling productivity and how to increase it, absenteeism, problems relating to punctuality, and so on. These problems need to be sorted out through dialogue because if they accumulate, they could burst out into the open and make the system dysfunctional. The discussions have to be based on mutually accepted rules. One such rule could be that industrial peace must be maintained for the good of all parties concerned. Hence we find trade unions in such organisations that take great pride in maintaining that they have never organised any labour unrest.

The main function of trade unions under the Systems approach is of maintaining order in the industry. They play an important role in serving as the voice of the workers. There are hundreds of workers in a factory with their own problems which, if not tended to, will cause discontent. Trade unions channel these different views and place them before the management. As it is impossible for the management to know the views of all workers, trade unions act on their behalf by putting forward their views.

2. Goal Gratification:

Goal gratification deals with the way workers view the industry through their unions. The aim of each worker is to work hard so that they can get some success in their lives. This goal can be achieved only if there is stability in industrial relations. Unstable systems may cause frustration to the workers because they are drawn away from their main objective of achieving maximum satisfaction.

How can this stability be achieved? The Systems theorists believed that there are political functions that deal with distribution of power. The hierarchies in the industrial system are based on power relations. These hierarchies are necessary as they help the actors attain their goals.

Most workers seek to improve their position within the industry. If this goal is not achieved, it could lead to chaos in the system. Each actor would like to be better than the others irrespective of the costs, resulting in unhealthy competition between the actors.

A regulated industrial system, where the hierarchy in industrial relations is based on mutually agreed rules is the answer to chaos. In such a system, the goals of the individual can be maintained in an orderly and organised manner. Hence this functional pre-requisite too stresses on stability and the rules of governance.

3. Integration:

The problem of solidarity is a critical issue facing the industrial system. It implies that management and labour cooperate with each other, which results in integration between the two. The industrial system runs as a smooth conflict-free apparatus. Integration could be achieved through shared understanding and common ideology of the system.

It is important to see how individual roles relate to the hierarchy, and how hierarchies relate to each other. The industrial system does not comprise a single hierarchy. There are line organisations and staff organisations as well as functional organisations.

The line organisation comprises the hierarchy from top to the bottom, while the staff organisation and functional organisations are vertical entities in the hierarchy. In other words, they may be occupying the same positions in the power structure, but at the same time, there could be tensions in these relations.

One section of the staff, say, the engineers, may feel that they are superior to the generalists, which include people in public relations, advertising, etc. There are others in the hierarchy too, such as the medical personnel who many may regard as outsiders, as they do not play a direct role in the production or distribution process.

Among workers, there may be competition between departments. For example, in a textile mill, workers in the weaving section may feel that they perform a more important task as compared to the spinning or dyeing sections.

In the army, officials in the stores section may be regarded as inferior to those who are involved in battlefield operations though they may occupy positions at the same level within the hierarchy. The main task before the management would be to integrate these sections so that it does not lead to conflicting situations.

Other problems of integration could be those of perceptions of authority concerning individual players. A union leader may assume the role of directing managers on how to conduct their affairs or there could be cases of those who are lower in the hierarchy wanting to play a bigger role.

This could strain the process of integration. What should the management’s role be in issues relating to participation of workers in managerial functions? These are issues that management has to solve with the help of the union.

4. Latent Pattern Maintenance:

Latent Pattern Maintenance preserves the system against cultural and notional pressures. The culture of society may be contrary to industrial values. We can see this in the case of countries that started industrialisation long after the Industrial Revolution.

The ranking of hierarchies in pre-industrial societies was based on the social position one had at the time of birth. One’s position in the hierarchy remained unchanged throughout one’s life and this also was true for the future generations. In industrial societies, one’s social status is determined through one’s achievements.

There could be a basic contradiction in these societies on these issues. The pre-industrial ideologies could permeate the industrial system, which could either lead to conflicting situations or to acceptance of the social values. Thus, in India, caste defines social status through ascription, but the caste system could lead to conflict within the industrial hierarchy as it is in many ways contradictory to it. A worker of a higher caste may not want to take orders from his supervisor from a lower caste because he feels he is socially superior.

Conflict in values could be seen through the working of textile mills in Mumbai in the 1930s, which is found in the work of Morris, the economic historian. Textile workers graded their positions in the hierarchy according to the type of work they did.

Hazardous work, such as that in the spinning section where cotton lint could fly and be inhaled by the workers or in the dyeing section where workers come in contact with chemicals, was done by workers of the lower castes. These workers were prevented from working in the weaving section which became the exclusive right of higher-caste workers.

They developed an ingenious way of preventing workers from lower castes from entering their section. They said that cloth made by any worker belonging to an untouchable caste was polluted’ and hence they would not touch it The reason they gave was that while putting the thread into the spindle, one has to wet it with one’s spit and if the spit from a low- caste touched the thread, the entire cloth would get polluted.

In this manner, we see how pre-industrial agencies such as caste permeated the industrial system which was expected to be different from caste hierarchies and where the notions of ritual purity or pollution were not supposed to exist.

However, another study conducted by sociologist N. K. Sheth in a Gujarat factory in the 1950s, shows something opposite to what has been discussed above. At that time, it was believed by Western sociologists that traditional Indian values such as caste were contradictory to the industrial culture. Sheth’s study showed that the management belonged to castes that were higher than those of the workers.

Even among the workers, there was a division of castes. He found that workers followed the management’s orders because of the traditional belief that they should obey orders from the upper caste Moreover, he found that among the workers, caste was used as an idiom to justify the success of some and rationalise the failures of the others.

In other words, when some workers were promoted, the others did not envy them; because they were from castes higher than theirs, they deserved it. In this way, they also rationalised their own failures. According to Sheth, this led to stability and conflict- free situations.


The most important shortcoming of the Systems Theory is that it deals with systems that are static. This is the common criticism of functionalists. However, we know that the industrial system is dynamic. By making the system static, the theory tends to focus on structures and ignore processes. Let us examine this is in detail.

Since the theory concentrates only on structure, it does not take into account what happens when structures fail in their objectives of achieving solidarity and industrial peace. The system is not free from conflict or dissidence. If managerial policies become aggressive towards the workers, there will be conflict sooner or later. Trade unions cannot doggedly stick to their position of avoiding conflict. Unfortunately, the Systems Theory with its emphasis on stability does not take such situations into account.

The stress on rule making has its shortcomings too. The stress is on formal rules, and informal organisation and its rules are overlooked. These are equally important if not more important for industrial relations. The Hawthorne experiment brought this aspect to the fore. We also dealt with this while elaborating on the criticism of bureaucracy.

Collective bargaining is not governed only by formal rules, for the bargaining process is influenced by other forces too. These could be outside the workplace or within it. For example, if there is a change in government and the new government takes a pro-labour position, the nature of collective bargaining may change.

Unions may be more aggressive in their demands. The state of the economy may be another external factor. If the economy is booming, the union may press for higher demands. Besides these factors that are related to the attitude of the state and the condition of the economy, there are a host of other factors as well.

These could be ethnic or religious factors that may divide a union, or a political party may vociferously campaign for removal of workers from outside the state. This could affect the relations inside the factory. The functioning of the union may change depending on the stand it takes. In such cases both sides, union and management, may adhere strictly to rules.

The final criticism relates to the belief that both sides share the same goals. This has been found to be incorrect. The goals of workers may be different from those of the management. Workers may want greater rest, less work and a decent life, and management may be opposed to that. The unions’ negotiation reflects the aspirations of the workers. Industrial relations have to exist in this environment of opposition.

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