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Saggi e Articoli

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS: Ways of Regulating Conflicts

Luigi Lama, Asmara-Firenze, October 2011


Industrial relation system existence is due to the different interests of the two main actors in modern production systems, workers and employers, and the necessity for both to cooperate. I am a trade union trainer and industrial relation conflicts have always been one of the main issues in my professional activity. When I started to teach at university I was stimulated to elaborate a theoretical framework to help young students - who are more used to abstract models - better understand a system of relations they have not yet directly met. However, when explaining and discussing such a theoretical framework with trade unionists attending training courses, I realized that it could be useful for them as well.

Seven years ago I started to prepare slides supporting my presentation, which, following some debate with my trainees, I have modified several times. I had the great opportunity to do this job with recipients who covered different roles such as students, trade unionists, governmental officers, company consultants, and had different nationalities like European, Asian and African. Finally, the meetings and the discussions in and out of the classroom with an expert group in Asmara - among them I must give my special thanks to Peter Mathuki - pushed me to prepare these short notes. I hope they can be in some way useful and further improved.


Now we are going to deal with a social competence such as conflicts regulation and we cannot expect to discover any magic formula to solve every future problem about it. Our goal is to acquire concepts and methods to analyse social behaviours, others’ and ours, and to become aware of our strengths and weaknesses in areas concerning that competence. Facing conflicts is part of everyday life and it implies being skilled enough to find a solution. The following analytical model is not an attempt at providing a magic formula to successfully solve any given problem. It should just help to see, understand and manage an issue consciously coming to a more or less satisfying solution.


People are different. People have different “preferences”.

We use this word in a wide sense meaning whatever someone may prefer - objectives or goals linked to interests, values and even simple behaviours - which is supposed to make individuals happier or more comfortable. In order to be fulfilled, preferences need resources, both material and immaterial, and often the single individual's resources are not sufficient. In some cases, somebody else's cooperation might be necessary either by providing resources or more simply by accepting to do something with somebody else. For instance, if I want to have dinner with somebody, I need that their cooperation to achieve such an objective. We live in a society and, in order to carry out most activities we need to involve several people. Relying only on our material and immaterial personal resources severely limits what we can do. We need somebody else’s cooperation and so we must consider other people and their preferences.

Some people may spontaneously have the same preference, at least as far as certain issues are concerned, but preferences are usually different and it is necessary to overcome those differences to have a common action, to achieve a common objective.

We have a conflict when different preferences collide.It happens among individuals in a family, a group, and an organization or among groups, organizations, companies, tribes, states, etc. Every living animal, not only we humans, has to face this challenge every time there is a relationship with other members of its own species.

Ways and instruments to overcome conflicts

The most primitive way to solve a conflict is to regard other preferences as an obstacle, which can be eliminated by imposing one’s preference as the only valid and legitimate one. According to this approach others’ preferences must be cancelled out in the most efficient way. The opposite approach is to believe that our own preference has no intrinsic merit and, therefore, it needs to be evaluated in order to assess whether it is as valid and legitimate as others’ preferences. If we think that every person deserves no less attention and respect than we do, we must find a way to compare, evaluate and overcome all the different preferences that come into play in a certain situation. Under such a circumstance, we expect respect and give equal respect to others.

These two approaches represent two opposite ways to solve the existence of different preferences and possible ensuing conflicts. On the one side, according to the logic of exclusion, only one of the exiting preferences is accepted and all of the others are rejected. On the other side, on the basis of the logic of inclusion, existing preferences are compared, evaluated and modified to obtain one single, common preference, which might be the result of either the merging of different preferences or the adoption of one pre-existing preference that is agreed upon by everyone.

These two main approaches are very relevant in the industrial relations context. The first approach corresponds to the concept that a public or private enterprise, as a social organization, must be subject to the control of its inventor and organizer, namely the entrepreneur. According to the opposite approach, the interests and preferences of all the actors involved in an enterprise should be taken into consideration, without anyone imposing their preferences over the others. Therefore, on the one side we find coercion and exclusion, on the other one consent and inclusion. There are several intermediate positions in between, which are characterized by different degrees of inclusion and exclusion. Such degrees are determined by the use of four main instruments which are strength, authority, norms and negotiation. Let's examine each one of them.


Strength is used to eliminate others’ preferences according two different methods that is by either forcing others to stop expressing their preferences or eliminating them. On the other hand, strength can be also used to resist such attempts. As a consequence, fighting is the most primitive behaviour adopted by living beings that are pursuing the objective to impose their choice over others’ preferences. This approach involves causing material and immaterial damages to others until they succumb and give up their preferences.

We can identify three kinds of strength: physical, economic, cultural.

Physical Strength

This is the probably the most primitive and immediate instrument to eliminate undesired options and, in extreme cases, the subjects expressing them. It evolved historically in political and armed force along purely human paths. This paper will not take this evolution into consideration but will focus on physical strength, namely violence, as an instrument, which can be effectively used against other individuals and their preferences.

The use of physical strength is still a relevant issue in the field of industrial relations. Violence against leaders, organisers, militants and even simple trade union members is clearly still present in many countries. If we take the verbal violence into consideration we can say that no country is totally exempt and the only difference regards the degree and number of occurring events. However, I do not intend to claim that violence is exclusively used to defend employers' interests and that this social part monopolize the use of this way of actinc. Violence is also used by some trade union exponents to intimidate opponents such as components of company hierarchy or members of other trade union organizations. But current data show that victims are largely within the trade unions environment.

Economic Strength

Economic strength means the free use of wealth (money, goods, …). The great difference in wealth between employers and workers has historically been the main incentive for the latter ones to organize themselves. The commonest way in which economic strength of the two social actors enters into play in industrial relations is the strike. It is the typical instrument of organized workers in order to cause damages to employers suspending goods and services production. On the employers side economic strength is the resources what they permit to resist to that form of pressure. From the early beginning of the industrial era it was obvious the huge difference in economic strength between workers and employers. Adam Smith, one of fathers of modern economy, wrote clear pages about it and the necessity of a better balance between the two parts. The solution passed, and still passes, by the association of the workers for collective bargaining and mutual solidarity before and during the struggles, for instance with fund raising the make longer the workers' resistance, and later to make binding the obtained agreements.

Cultural Strength

Cultural strength means the capacity to elaborate and to affirm what is true and/or good. In many context, and industrial relations are one of them, culture does not show it strength directly but for its effects in political and economic field. But it has its autonomy and must be separately analyzed. Regarding industrial relations an example of cultural struggle against workers organizations and their activity it expressed by some economic theories mainstreaming in Great Britain and Europe at the beginning of the XIX century. Those theory affirmed that the economic system would have been brought to a disaster if salaries were increased because they must be always at survival level. Workers' organizations did not renounce to their struggle for better conditions and history has demonstrated that growth, general spread wealth and better workers' conditions can go on together, and even they support each other, as later new economic theories have been able to explain. At company level to know and understand how and why a concrete organization work, both technical and economic point of view, is very important to carry on an effective bargaining bring to a good collective agreement.

Another face of the cultural strength regards reputation of involved parts. Each one will defend its own and - it can occur often in a struggle - will try to damage the others' one, as collectively as individually, to weaken their support and make individuals more uncertain, undermining self-esteem. In the industrial relation arena this kind facing between the natural counterparts has always been existing both as collective as individual actors, in more o less fair ways. Both parts claim to be on the side of human rights, of development and general wealth.

I do not assert that one social actor embodies always justice, wealth and good for alls. On the contrary the unbalanced prevalence of one provokes damages, waste, lack of potential development. The facts show that normally the single worker is largely weaker than the employer, first from the economic point of view and often from the cultural one, because the wealth permits to buy information and knowledge, so only autonomous collective organization of workers can balance that asymmetry.


Using struggle to solve conflicts is an expensive way. Often very expensive. Comparing the total amount of existing resources, material and immaterial, before and after the struggle, when conflict is solved, we always found a negative difference. Some of them have been destroyed. The sum of the resources of the whole system is lower. Usually also the winner is weaker. For instance after a strike the workers earns less and the company too. It could be considered a necessary cost to push the employers' part to start to bargain or to accept an agreement. But it is surely a cost. In the same time every organization used to solve its internal conflicts by struggles between the involved parts became weaker and weaker. Let's think about a family or a company where quarrelling is continuous.

So humans, and before them other animals living in society, have invented a second instrument: authority. The chief. A subject able to solve conflicts and whose preference is considered more important, better than others. It means that in a community there is an hierarchy, namely capacity to command, giving acceptable orders. In this way we are not obliged to struggle every time but only change the hierarchy and so we save a lot of resources. Such an organizational solution gives to any social group a further important achievement: being able to decide quickly. It is important in many occasions and consequently we meet a clear and strong hierarchy in the organizations where a rapid decision is an crucial quality.

Hierarchy exists also in trade unions and worker representatives at company or workplace level, which are not necessarily unions structures. In trade unions, as well as in any organization with a representative function, hierarchy must be combined with democracy: to be representative needs to confront with and respond to grassroots expectations.

Company hierarchy represents the employer's will and control in the company day life and some top exponent is the workers' organizations natural counterpart during bargaining process. A fact that probably bring some trade unionists to be intolerant to any form of hierarchy.


Besides, or following, authority in solving conflicts there is another instrument: norms. They are statements ordering certain behaviours. They are not only a human instrument. As the others said above norms exist among social animals too. For instance wolves fight to decide the pack hierarchy, but if surrenders show their belly and their throat the rival fighter must stop immediately and never bite the defeated adversary. In such a way the second best wolf is recognized as loyal resource of the group. It is easy to understand that this norm enables the group to maintain as much as possible its own resources. In this way the pack will be stronger than killing or expelling the subject who dared to contest the incumbent hierarchy. In a human group - company, organization or part of them - such a behaviour is not at all trivial and quietly predictable.

We have three different kinds of norms, everyone influencing the industrial relations system. They are custom, moral rules, rules of law. Custom may be very strong in a social system - as a local community, a factory, a company or single parts of it as offices, plants, etc - sometimes compelling the other two kinds in a lesser role. Moral norms are related to individuals and, regarding our issue, they may be an important boost in starting and maintaining collective actions, especially when there are clear risks and uncertain benefits. The rules of laws want to be the strongest in societies since the State exists.

The existence of authority and norms makes possible, besides the struggle we seen above, to two more ways to a different use of strength: competition and non-violent struggle.

Competition means the possibility to choose among several things or persons assessing their capacity to achievement. Regarding the general interests competition is the most profitable way to decide when there is only one not divisible stake, for instance an apex role. Competition allows to be evaluated and rewarded according to one’s merits and can regard all the three kinds of strength. For instance only affirming norms and authority accepted by all participants we can pass from absolutely brutal fights to sport. Sport games are different in several aspects. If we pinpoint the allowed ways to defeat adversaries we see two polar models. On the one hand we have games where winners must make and block the adversaries in making, show the rivals succumbing to their blows, as in boxing. On the opposite hand the ability is just make the best and trying to hinder adversaries is forbidden. Track-and-field events are in the second group. In between are those games in which succeeding in a fair way combines the ability to make better athletic actions and to obstruct the rival team in doing. In this kind of games the several forms of football are the most popular. Probably this way of competing looks more like real social life and it could be one reason of its global successfully spread.

To think about the difference between struggle and competition is very important also concerning economics and, hence, the industrial relations system. A fair competition inside markets needs norms and authorities able to make those norms binding. Otherwise we have a struggle in which every possible way to beat others is allowed. Here is the crucial point. Markets need norms. All the three kinds of norms: custom, moral and rules of law. The ideology of the free market asserting the lack of any norm for a complete free of choice is false. Or more precisely, that ideology affirms the interest of the strongest actors to became more and more powerful, satisfying their interest by submitting all other subjects with any possible mean, fair or unfair. To be safe when we buy food we need norms and authorities able to punish severely who sell toxic food. A market unable to ensure that is not only unfair, it is severely dangerous for any social system. And it is valid for any kind of market: goods, services, work and capitals.

Non-violent struggle relies on the existence of contradictions between behaviour, and the laws making it legal, and other norms and values affirmed in the society. This kind of struggle takes is strength in showing that contradiction and bringing evidences of it. So it can works only where this contradiction exists and evidences of it can be shown. The slow but concrete development of non-violent struggles in the last century is surely one of the best achievements for humanity.

All the three above said instruments, strength, authority and norms are present in the modern societies where an industrial relations system exists. Every actor of an industrial relations system must take care of those three instruments. Their existence and opportunity of use define in the same time characters of the social contest, of the arena where the social actors play their role and how they can play it. For any actor it is impossible to define an effective strategy without considering if, in which way and how much every instrument can be used by each of the involved parts.


The negotiation is a complex communication process aimed to reach an agreement between two or more individuals or collective actors. The involved actors can mobilize resources which are necessary, or at least useful, to achieve their objectives, but no one of them has everything desired. The communication process starts when actors express their different preferences and look for a new common one which everyone of them could agree. In such communication process, which is a decision making process, the involved actors propose exchanges of obligations and benefits. If and when they consider satisfying a designed picture of exchange of resources there is an agreement. It is a new preference, a decision which all actors who agree feel as their own preference. The logic of building agreement is unanimous consent, neither majority nor else. It means that agreement binds only the actors, individual of collective, giving their own consent.

That is a proper quality of agreement: consent of involved actors. It is always a necessary condition in order to have the deepest involvement of subjects, to reach their intelligent cooperation to an objective they consider and perceive as their own. This is an important condition to produce quality goods and services, where workforce is not only physical energy, just working muscles, but persons able to think, giving a contribute thanks their intelligence and sensitivity.

There is an important consideration concerning negotiation in industrial relations. Negotiation is compulsory for trade unions, not for employers. In "human resources management" there is always a feasible alternative to agreement. The owner can manage a company using strength, authority and norms. These ways could be sufficient. Workers don't have got them as instrument for an autonomous decision and its implementation. Surely the can have strengths, authorities and norms putting them in a more or less favourable condition, but workers need to reach an agreement with their counterpart to transform their preferences in new rules concretively operating when they differ from the exiting ones. The employee condition has this hard corollary: subordination makes asymmetric the nature of the relation between the two parts.

So when trade union face the absence in willing to negotiate in their counterparts must show the missing benefits and the incoming cost of such a behaviour. And make the difference between to get an agreement and to have not as much clearly visible as possible. Use all instruments which are available to make the lack of agreement less and less convenient.


We have seen that a system using only strength to solve conflicts can exist; some social system combine strength and authority, then some others add a third instrument, norms, to those two. A system including negotiation doesn't exclude but include the other ways both as alternatives and as instruments to negotiate and build an agreement, that is giving a frame, pushing to certain solutions, giving different chances to actors.

The following picture shows the four instruments ordered according to the two criteria mentioned at the beginning of this text. One criteria is the opposite logic of coercion ad consent. At the extreme side we find strength, used to struggle, and negotiation. Authority and norms are intermediate, because of the presence of a certain degree of consent is necessary for being effective, otherwise there would be a struggle against them by those who refuse their consent/submission. The second criteria is coherent with the first one, opposing logic of exclusion and of inclusion. On the one side there is only a kind of preference/actor admitted and all other must be submitted and deleted. On the other side the differences are admitted, compared, examined and cooperate to output.

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