Ideas of employee participation and voice have a long history as part of the search for positive employment relations.  In practice, participation can refer to a wide range of approaches ranging from employee involvement techniques such as profit sharing, quality circles and communication initiatives, to giving workers ownership and control of organisations. 

In between these two extremes is the pluralist idea of representative participation.  The central assumption is that differences of interest will inevitably arise in organisations, and effective employee representation can help regulate different interests.  Often representation has been provided by independent trade unions through collective bargaining and joint regulation of the employment relationship. Given the potential for differences of interest, relationships between employers and unions may be expected to be adversarial and antagonistic at times.  

However, there has also been increasing interest in developing more collaborative arrangements where employers and unions work together in support of the overall success of the organisation.  In some continental European nations, notably Germany, ideas of cooperation and dialogue between social partners on issues of labour and industrial management are enshrined in law, and embedded in notions of social democracy and industrial citizenship.  

In other countries, including the UK and US, such ideas are more novel.  In the UK, concerns with partnership can be traced to debates in the 1980s concerning ‘New Industrial Relations’. The 1992 IPA publication Towards Industrial Partnership captured many of the early ideas and debates, but it was not until the election of the Blair government of 1997 than partnership was firmly in the policy spotlight. In the US, partnership builds on concerns with the economic and productivity benefits of union-management cooperation, and the potential of labour management partnership to deliver mutual gains, often as part of a broader high performance work system.  Partnership has also attracted interest in other English-speaking nations, and was promoted in Australia as part of ‘best practice’ in the 1990s and also reappeared more recently during the Gillard government.  Public policy interest in partnership has also waxed and waned in the context of both Ireland and New Zealand.  

However, partnership has always divided opinion.  For some, partnership is the only feasible approach for contemporary trade unions and can deliver benefits for unions, employees and employers alike.  For others partnership is a bad idea and likely to further weaken trade unions and to deliver few benefits for their members. From this perspective, weak institutional and legal supports as well as a business focus on short-term financial results mean voluntary partnerships are always at risk of running aground.  Somewhere in between are commentators who believe that, while challenging, in the right conditions and with appropriate supports effective and enduring partnerships are possible at the enterprise level.  

The research evidence certainly lends support to this more nuanced view.  While labour management partnership may not be the dominant form of employment relations in countries such as the UK, US and Australia, ‘islands of success’ can be identified at the organisational level in each nation.  The important question, therefore, is no longer simply whether labour management partnership works or not, but why successful partnerships can – and do - develop in some organisational contexts but not others.  This was the motivation for our new edited book which offers comparative insights into labour management partnership in the UK, Ireland, US, Australia and New Zealand. 

It begins by outlining some of the key conceptual debates for and against partnership approaches, drawing primarily upon the British experience as this is where many of these debates have taken place.  It then evaluates the evolving public policy context for partnership in each nation, before presenting a detailed workplace level case study of partnership in practice in each national context.  The case studies of partnership in practice are diverse and include a British energy company, a US healthcare organisation, an Irish aluminium smelter, an Australian bank and a New Zealand dairy.  

A recurring theme is that where institutional supports are relatively weak compared to those of some continental European countries, it is normally up to employers and unions to initiate and sustain a partnership model.  Yet many of our workplace case studies demonstrate how ‘islands of partnership’ can survive even though the national context may be considered broadly unfavourable to enduring labour management cooperation.  Of course there might always be the temptation to abandon commitments to work in partnership when relationships encounter a bump in the road.  On the other hand, where actors have come together and invested great energy in improving industrial relations and perceive real benefits, it is perhaps unsurprising they can be keen to make it work.  

Working in partnership is not an easy option; indeed it can be very challenging for all involved.  But our book demonstrates how, with appropriate supports and in certain contexts, partnership models can potentially lubricate employment relations and deliver gains for employers, employees and unions.

While the partnership debate may have lost momentum in recent years, eclipsed by concerns with raising levels of employee engagement, at a workplace level the search for positive employment relations is unlikely to go away. It is hoped our collection will stimulate the debate

Stewart Johnstone, is Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management (Newcastle University, UK) 

Adrian Wilkinson, is Professor of Employment Relations (Griffith University, Australia).

Developing Positive Employment Relations: International Experiences of Labour Management Partnership edited by Stewart Johnstone and Adrian Wilkinson will be published in May 2016 and is available to pre-order at