Workplace Participation in Britain, Past, Present, and Future: Academic Social Science Reflections on 40 Years of Industrial Relations Change and Continuity

  • Peter Ackers


Works Councils and other forms of statutory workplace consultation play a significant role in many European countries. This has never been true in the British Industrial Relations system. Instead, employers and the state encouraged voluntary collective bargaining from the late nineteenth century onwards. Pluralist academics responded by redefining Industrial Democracy as ‘joint regulation’ by management and trade unions. Other participation forms were marginalized, until Thatcherism and 1980s union decline saw the emergence of weak, managerial employee involvement. Holding fast to the single-union channel, British unions have missed opportunities to spread workplace participation, notably within the EU. Drawing on personal research, I explain the relative failure of active, constructive participation in Britain, notwithstanding some successful workplace partnership agreements.


Industrial relations history Industrial democracy Worker participation Employee involvement Employee engagement Consultation Trade unions 


Workplace participation has been the Cinderella of British employment relations. For most of the twentieth century, collective bargaining blocked out all other avenues for workplace participation. Then, from 1979 onwards, weak forms of managerial Employee Involvement (EI) eclipsed the hopes for a renaissance based on voluntary workplace partnership and EU statutory initiatives. Workplace participation has been a central theme in my own career as an Industrial Relations (IR) academic. Here I track the changes and continuities through my own academic research experience of the subject over nearly 40 years. For academic concepts and public policy initiatives have been deeply intertwined in a ‘triple hermeneutic’ (for the ‘double hermeneutic’, see Giddens 1987). Thereby, British social scientists—mostly in Business Schools, themselves a product of the changing scene—have not only (1) interpreted the employment world from the outside and (2) shaped its changing language but also (3) absorbed and criticized new employment concepts created by management gurus and consultants. Hence the changing terminology of my era: from industrial relations, collective bargaining, industrial democracy , workers’ participation, and personnel management, at the beginning, to the now more familiar British coinage of EI, partnership, employee engagement, and human resource management (HRM).

My active IR research on workplace participation began in 1981 and has continued ever since. This can be tracked through a string of books and articles and two major research projects, both led by Mick Marchington, which became influential studies of the changing nature of British workplace participation in the crucial two decades after the election of Mrs. Thatcher (Marchington et al. 1992, 2001; Ackers et al. 2006). As one colleague from my generation has commented, ‘what began for us as Sociology has become History’, in the sense that we have lived through real historical time and, to a small extent, been actors in this (Tuckman 2016). In the twenty-first century, I turned to the history of British IR, and this has allowed me to backfill the era before I became involved in contemporary workers’ participation. As a result, my story of British workplace participation falls into four distinct periods—before and after Mrs. Thatcher and before and after New Labour—with Brexit on the horizon. The chapter concludes by returning to the fundamental question of what workers’ participation means for the future of work and the lives of contemporary employees.

Britain has experienced a distinctive journey in relation to workplace participation: one similar to other Anglo-Saxon economies, but also susceptible to continental EU influences. Moreover, what makes for useful participation has been sharply contested. British IR academics have been highly suspicious of Human Relations approaches and unitarist, managerial forms of participation predicated on the belief that employers and workers share the same interests. Thus, following the economistic preferences of British trade unions, they have tended to turn their backs on questions of job satisfaction and the humane benefits of team-working, to obsess on pay and conditions and especially pay. Hence the failure to professionalize employment relations, noted by Perkin (1989; Ackers 2015). And yet, IR pluralists have always sought constructive, negotiated form of partnership between trade unions and employers, and, in recent years, have engaged with the unitarist EI agenda (Heery 2016, ch. 5). By contrast, a strong academic tradition of radical, marxian IR has tended to reject all forms of workplace co-operation under capitalism (Ackers 2010; Ackers et al. 1992; Ramsay 1977; Poole 1986).

This chapter takes a neo-pluralist perspective that recognizes tensions between employee and employer interests, while seeing considerable scope for active forms of workplace participation that benefit both employees and the organization (Ackers 2002, 2014a). With a few notable company exceptions, active collective workers’ participation, as this is understood in northern continental Europe, has been weak in Britain. Neither employers nor the state have been enthusiastic, while trade unions have spurned forms that might threaten their institutional interests. Even employees have shown limited interest. In this sense, my chapter focuses on missed opportunities, particularly for the British labour movement.

Collective Bargaining and Industrial Democracy in Social Democratic Industrial Society (to 1979)

As an historian of British IR, I was fortunate to spend my formative teenage years during Britain’s last decade of social democratic, Industrial Society. So, unlike the next generation, I can remember the old world that Thatcher demolished—and without any delusions about a lost golden age. My middle-class family came from around Wigan and Leyland, towns in the then ‘industrial Lancashire’. Grandad Ackers had managed a BTR Rubber Belt Factory; I attended junior school in a cotton ‘mill town’, Barnoldswick, where Dad was a local doctor, and went to senior school around Leeds and Bradford in the industrial West Riding of Yorkshire (Ackers 2016a). Most of the holiday jobs I recall back then, before and during University, were in manual or factory work: demolition, cardboard and toy factories, a postman. The pubs and rugby league grounds seemed to be full of smoke and tough working men—though statistics show that service and white-collar work had already overtaken this male, manual, manufacturing world.

My first contact with the debate over workplace participation came in 1977 at the Oxford Union—of all places. There I witnessed Arthur Scargill, the militant, marxist leader of the National Unions of Mineworkers attack the 1977 Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy (see below) as a form of class collaboration, with another left-wing union leader, Ray Buckton of ASLEF, the train driver’s union, speaking for the defense. A young radical, I was probably impressed by Scargill then, but as a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) undergraduate, I was taught political and industrial sociology by Rod Martin, from the second generation of the influential, pluralist, ‘Oxford School of Industrial Relations’ founded by Hugh Clegg and Allan Flanders. I also heard Bill McCarthy, another important figure in that school (Ackers 2016b). It’s hard to believe now that in the late 1970s, the main British IR debate was between establishment pluralists and a rising radicalism preaching militancy and workers’ control.

I also caught a scent of those defining 1970s IR conflicts, when in 1980, employed as a cleaner at University College Hospital, London , I joined the National Union of Public Employees in the immediate aftermath of the 1978–1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’ strikes that destroyed the Callaghan Labour Government and brought Mrs. Thatcher to power. Caught up in the Bennite politics of the time, I became interested in trade unions and workers control, attending an Institute of Workers Control conference in Nottingham where Tony Benn spoke. These enthusiasms led to an MA in Industrial Relations at Warwick University. Hugh Clegg was still around, researching the second volume of his trade union history, while another important IR pluralist, Willy Brown, taught me labour economics. However, radical ideas were in the ascendancy, especially among postgraduate students, and Richard Hyman (1975) was their lodestar. But to me, at the time, they seemed more interested in the destructive economic militancy of free collective bargaining than in constructive workers’ control (Ackers 2014a, b).

At Warwick, radicals and pluralists were united by a fascination with the nearby Coventry engineering factories. The working classes were still in the factories—or so it seemed—and I followed their lead. My MA dissertation compared the negotiation of redundancy at two factories in London —a strange thought now—one making pressurized oxygen vessels, the other aluminium foil, both heavily unionized (Ackers 1981). Thus I was inducted into the already disappearing world of engineering shop stewards, collective bargaining, restrictive practices, and ‘waiting time’. I was inspired by the Lucas Workers Alternative Plan, as a response to deindustrialization and redundancy. In reality, the IR ground was moving under our feet, but there was little awareness of this in the early 1980s. To many, Thatcher seemed a short-term interlude, before the return of a radical Labour Government and more militant, free collective bargaining. In 1978, Ken Gill, the Communist union leader, had pronounced that powerful, militant trade unions were here to stay, but he was soon proved wrong (Hobsbawm 1981).

Thus, with hindsight, I came into IR just at the end of a century-long era of growing trade union power. For some on the radical fringes—like me at the time—this pointed to workers control, but for most it meant either moderate or militant free collective bargaining. Until 1979 voluntary collective bargaining between employers and trade unions was the principal British participation channel; and at workplace level this meant negotiations with shop stewards or lay union representatives. Hence the Webbs and later Hugh Clegg defined collective bargaining as the essence of Industrial Democracy (Webb and Webb 1897; Clegg 1960; Ackers 2007) . This was linked to a strong preference for a single channel by which trade unions exercised exclusive representation rights for employees. Some late nineteenth-century forms of managerial participation, linked to Paternalism or Welfare Capitalism, such as profit-sharing and non-union consultation committees, preceded collective bargaining at progressive employers; but they were marginalized by it in the twentieth century, only to return to favour in the twenty-first.

Statutory forms of workers’ participation have always been weak and secondary in the British ‘voluntarist’ system. Neither employers nor trade unions wanted them. However, from the late Victorian period onwards, the state (later the Ministry of Labour or Employment) actively sponsored the spread of collective bargaining and hence trade union organization (Clegg et al. 1964; Clegg 1985, 1994; Howell 2005). The longue durée to 1979—a century of union growth accelerated by two World Wars—saw the triumph of British ‘collective laissez -faire’. The role of law was to ‘hold the ring’ of voluntary relationships between employers and trade unions and to fill gaps in the coverage of collective bargaining. Thus a Liberal government introduced the 1909 Trade Boards Act, which established Wages Councils as statutory surrogates for collective bargaining, with the assumption that the legal element could be dispensed with once the voluntary parties became strong enough to stand on their own two feet.

The Great War (1914–1918) fostered ‘corporate bias’ at a national tripartite level, with a growing role for the TUC (Middlemas 1979). In reaction, ‘informal’ workplace shop stewards organization grew in engineering. The year 1917 saw the important state Whitley initiative for Joint Industrial Councils, at industry, district, and workplace levels. The aim was to spread active consultation in the workplace, as an alternative to conflict, but the main effect was to further extend collective bargaining to the public sector. As always in Britain, consultation was the bridesmaid to collective bargaining. Following the 1926 General Strike, the Mond-Turner talks between the TUC and progressive employers also encouraged a move away from industrial conflict. In practice, this meant a consolidation of industry bargaining (outside the workplace) in 1930s conditions of high unemployment.

World War II dramatically increased the economic and political power of trade unions in the workplace, through full employment and the need to win workers’ active support for the war effort. In 1940 Ernest Bevin, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), Britain’s largest general union, became the Minister of Labour under a Conservative-led coalition government. He engineered a successful wartime labour mobilization using voluntary IR systems, with curbs on the right to strike. Collective bargaining covered yet more ground. But there was also a major wartime innovation in the sphere of workplace participation: Joint Production and Advisory Committees (JAPCs). ‘The JPACs were designed to deal with any issue relating to production or increased efficiency, but to exclude matters dealt with by the negotiating machinery’ (Marchington et al. 1992, p. 5). These new institutions benefited from fervent support by Communist and other militants, during the patriotic, pro-Soviet, productivist phase of opposing strikes. ‘Joint consultation reached its peak of popularity during the Second World War’ (Clegg 1960, p. 33) . JPACs represented a counterfactual moment, when Britain almost adopted a new co-operative workplace model. With centralized national bargaining still strong and supported by disciplined trade unions and employers’ associations, there was an opportunity to develop an institutional separation between distributive collective bargaining (still then largely at industry level outside the workplace) and integrative workplace consultative structures that anticipated the post-war German model.

This was not to be, however, as from 1945 there was a rapid return to free collective bargaining, with liberal market and oppositional left traditions of trade unionism triumphing, even as Britain entered a supposed ‘social democratic consensus’. Also bargaining was increasingly fragmented and decentralized to the workplace, with a growing role for local lay representatives, particularly in large-scale engineering. Continued full employment saw the rapid marginalization of joint consultation by the development of this strong, adversarial workplace shop steward movement. Clegg and Flanders’ pluralist ‘Oxford School’ turned this emerging reality into a normative public policy position. At best, workplace consultation was supplementary to collective bargaining, which was the real Industrial Democracy. In 1960, Hugh Clegg concluded that: ‘joint consultation can be written off as an effective instrument of industrial democracy’, because trade unions and collective bargaining had assumed that role more effectively. ‘Thus part of the pressure-group system of modern Britain was transferred to new channels’ (Clegg 1960, pp. 91–93). This reflected not ignorance of continental approaches to participation so much as an initial, hubristic confidence that British voluntarism and the ‘art of compromise’ worked best. Other IR systems, like West German Co-determination and Works Councils, might be useful as institutional surrogates in those countries where trade unions and collective bargaining were immature and weak: ‘German trade unions […] had a long way to catch up with Britain in 1947’. While the threat of Works Council to union independence had been exaggerated, ‘there is no reason to think that co-determination has given the German worker a greater share of vicarious power and reflected glory than the British engineering workers enjoys through his shop stewards in a well-organized firm, or by the British miner through the offices of a well-run miners’ lodge’ (Clegg 1960, pp. 95–97).

By the 1960s, this confidence in British voluntarism was evaporating, as the 1964 Labour Government tried to institutionalize Britain’s long-running corporatist tradition and address unofficial strikes, restrictive work practices, and fragmentary and inflationary workplace bargaining. IR breakdown and failed attempts at reform characterized the remaining years until 1979. There was a renewed social democratic interest in management and trade union co-operation, which Allan Flanders’, The Fawley Productivity Agreements (1964) tried to address through company-level productivity bargaining. The 1968 Donovan Report on Trade Unions and Employers Associations again dismissed joint consultation and other forms of workers’ participation other than collective bargaining, but championed Flanders’ solution of extending and reforming workplace and company collective bargaining. Rejecting institutional separation (more difficult to achieve now that pay bargaining had drifted down to workplace level), Donovan championed the single union channel of participation through collective bargaining, but tried to combine integrative with distributive elements within this (Flanders 1964; Donovan Report 1968).

By the 1977 Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy, Britain was more willing to learn lessons from more successful continental European economies, now that we’d joined the EEC and the weaknesses of our IR system were apparent. The commissioners paid visits to Sweden and West Germany and recommended a British version of German co-determination. However, the TUC still insisted on a single, union-only channel for appointing workers to company boards and remained resistant to any participation institutions other than collective bargaining. So Bullock proposed tripartite company boards for large companies, but employee members were to be appointed through trade unions. Though Bullock’s goals were supposedly integrative, critics feared that this would raise to a new level the old distributive, arms-length adversarial bargaining (Currie 1979; Bullock 1977). Bullock was never implemented, but once again British trade unions had successfully blocked the development of complimentary workplace participation institutions. In 1979, Mrs. Thatcher ended the search for social democratic IR solutions.

The year 1979 saw the high tide of Britain’s collective laissez-faire model, with trade union membership at 55% of the workforce and a collective bargaining coverage of 75%. When Thatcher came to power, the system was still expanding and most expected it to continue to do so. In many organizations, joint consultation committees coexisted with negotiating bodies, but—with a few exceptions—they were weak, low-status institutions (on nationalized coal, see Ackers and Payne 2000). For the militant trade union left, this was the strongest IR system in the world, but in reality they were living on borrowed time and outcomes such as productivity and industrial order were amongst the worst in the advanced industrial world. Thatcherism and neo-liberalism arose because IR pluralism and social democratic corporatism had failed in Britain, whereas it had succeeded in most North European economies (Ackers 2018). This failure to build an active, constructive element of workplace participation was a central reason for the democratic triumph of the New Right. Yet there had been four opportunities to build an effective system of workplace consultation complementary to collective bargaining: with Whitley Councils in 1920, JPCs in 1945, consultation at Donovan in 1968, and co-determination at Bullock in 1977.

Employee Involvement and HRM Under Thatcherism (1979–1997)

In 1986, I returned to academic IR research with a comparative study of two firms in the West Midlands Lock and Carpet industries at Wolverhampton Polytechnic Business School. This was in tune with IR’s continuing fascination with fast-disappearing factories, but by this stage no one was expecting workers to seize control; all the initiative was with management (Ackers 1988). Following the 1984–1985 British Miners’ Strike, the IR world had changed dramatically and few could deny it. Neil Kinnock’s modernization of the Labour Party built the foundations of Tony Blair’s New Labour. John Storey (my MPhil second supervisor) was seconded to the Warwick IRRU and writing about the replacement of Personnel Management by HRM (Storey 1989). Even in old, unionized factories like mine, management was introducing new forms of EI. Inspired by popular management texts, such as Peter and Waterman’s 1982 In Search of Excellence, EI borrowed a language and techniques from unitarist US companies like IBM, blended with Japanese team-working. The gist was a new apparently participative approach to management that didn’t depend on trade unions or collective bargaining. In the case of the carpet company—which had a militant power-loom weaver tradition—this meant quality circles and forms of team briefing, using corporate videos, which threatened to bypass an obstructive union blocking the road to flexible, multi-loom weaving.

In many cases like the above, the old union-centred collective bargaining channel ran side by side with the new EI. Whether one would destroy the other or they could develop a positive symbiotic relationship became a major bone of academic contention. I pursued these issues across a larger canvass, when, in 1989, I joined the first major study of EI, funded by the Department of Employment and led by Mick Marchington and John Goodman—two leading pragmatic, empiricist IR pluralists. Under the Conservative government brief, we were allowed to discuss collective bargaining, but not to regard it as a form of EI in itself—a sign of the changing times. From being the fulcrum of British Industrial Democracy, joint regulation had become marginal to the new managerial EI. The other research associate was Adrian Wilkinson, a future HRM specialist, who became a long-term collaborator and sometime colleagues at Loughborough University Business School, where I moved in October 1991. Later, our joint Loughborough PhD student, Stewart Johnstone, would help to take the voice and partnership arguments forward (Johnstone and Wilkinson 2016). The EI project spawned a theoretical critique of Harvey Ramsay’s pessimistic marxist ‘cycles of control’ view of workers’ participation. According to this, employers only showed any interest in workers’ participation when under pressure to incorporate organized labour. Since no such pressure existed in the 1980s, it was hard to explain the new EI (Ackers et al. 1992).

New Developments in Employee Involvement charted a new employment relations world. Here the expanding managerial techniques for workers’ participation were downward communications , or what the Industrial Society had termed ‘team briefing’ in the 1970s, and upward problem-solving, including methods such as ‘quality circles’ and ‘total quality management’, later often termed ‘empowerment’. A third technique, financial participation, including employee bonuses and employee share ownership plans (ESOPS), proved the most transient once the era of large-scale government privatizations was over. Representative participation—the mainstream continental way of understanding workers’ participation—included the long-standing British tradition of weak joint consultation committees and general relations with trade unions. We found a few local instances of renaissance here, including a Japanese company council, but by and large representative participation was in decline, as the WERS surveys would continue to chart (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2013). Downward communications, upward problem-solving, and representative participation remain the triple framework for ‘Employee Involvement and Participation’ in contemporary HRM, integrating pluralist and unitarist elements (Dundon and Wilkinson 2016).

British business was not turning from collective bargaining to consultation—or to the forms of collective incorporation that Ramsay had feared—but to direct engagement with employees as individuals or teams. Our 25 case studies gave proper attention to the expanding private and public service. The deindustrialization of the early 1980s and the later booms in financial services and retail had dramatically reconfigured the map of employment relations. My MPhil had addressed changes in existing, unionized workplaces, but in new businesses management had no unions to uproot—active, large-scale derecognition remained rare—and could create new non-union forms of EI. Yet our ‘escalator of participation’ (see Marchington et al. 1992, Fig. 29.1) placed most of these new EI schemes on the lowest step. Management was modernizing, in a unitarist style, following American and Japanese best practice, and no doubt many British employees benefitted from this. But active workers’ participation in terms of corporate decision-making was off the agenda. Of course there are other ways of reading these steps upwards towards a pluralist participatory nirvana. Advocates of pure managerial EI would argue that the lowest steps were closest to ordinary employees as direct participation—in the same way that team briefing prioritized local content—and the highest ones increasing indirect and removed; a real problem we will return to below.
Fig. 29.1

The escalator of participation

The wider context to our EI research was a largely completed Thatcherite IR revolution. Within a decade this had shifted Britain from a (failed) co-ordinated market economy to a decidedly liberal market model and distanced our approach to workplace participation from those found on the continent (Hall and Soskice 2001). British collective laissez-faire came to an abrupt end, causing a dramatic decline in bargaining coverage and union membership. However, this was much more than a transformation of existing workplaces. Rather we witnessed a dramatic reshaping of the entire pattern of employment. Early monetarism had accelerated deindustrialization and the transition to a post-industrial service economy, decimating Britain’s old industrial heartlands—coal, steel, engineering—with high job losses in traditional unionized primary and secondary industries, tough new IR laws, and the withdrawal of active state and employer support for collective bargaining. Private services expanded largely beyond the reach of trade unions. This major change in the shape of British employment, displaced the old IR ‘best practice’ role models, like Ford or ICI, with non-union paradigms and gave management the space to construct the new managerial and unitarist EI (Marchington et al. 1992).

British trade unions were very slow to adjust to the new reality or acknowledge their part in the failure of the post-war pluralist IR system. One exception was the Electricians union, with its pioneering ‘no strike deals’ with Japanese inward investors (Bassett 1986). The new managerial HRM had little place for strong forms of collective consultation, like works councils, and feared a return to adversarial bargaining and strikes—a fear apparently shared by the British electorate. Thatcherism was actively hostile to most forms of trade union activity. At the same time, British unions retreated behind defensive barriers and failed to stimulate an active, constructive dialogue, such as the 1928 Mond-Turner talks, believing that Thatcher was a short-term, unpopular development and that the status quo ante would soon be restored. It took nearly two decades before the TUC actively promoted ‘partnership’ in the late 1990s under a New Labour government.

Partnership and EU Social Policy Under New Labour (1997–2010)

By the mid-1990s, I regarded New Labour’s borrowing of EU ‘social partnership’ as a constructive social strategy for the revival of British trade unions within a changed context for workplace participation (Ackers and Payne 1998). Our 1996 edited collection, The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, saw that the very future of unions was in question (Ackers et al. 1996). In a key section, rehearsed earlier at a Labour Process Conference, Nick Bacon and John Storey made an early case for moderate partnership as a union strategy against John Kelly’s argument for militancy as the road to union renewal. Since there was precious little of the latter around by the 1990s, the radical argument soon turned to union organizing, as the main alternative to partnership. New Labour made it clear that it would not resurrect 1970s national tripartite structures. The unions still had to prove to the electorate that they were responsible citizens, a public good, and that there was no going back to the strike-ridden 1970s. Even so, there was active funding for partnership deals and legislation to support union recognition, as well as a National Minimum Wage and extensive new individual employment rights. Perhaps the greatest silence in academic IR lies around why the unions couldn’t do more with the legal props they were given. John Monks at the TUC championed partnership, but an organizing academy was also established with contradictory values. This laid the basis for today’s rather confused and confusing trade union movement that often engages in militant public rhetoric, yet acts moderately where it still has recognition in the private sector. But, as we shall see, workplace partnership developed a lasting and stable presence in still unionized sectors, such as high-end manufacturing, including the expanding British car industry, banking, and the public sector.

In 2001, the Marchington et al. team was funded by the principal HRM body in Britain, the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPD), to address the new popular concept of Voice, which included the same range of participation methods as EI, but excluded financial participation (Marchington et al. 2001). My first recollection of this new language for workplace participation was a meeting in London with Mike Emmott of the CIPD. By now another Manchester-based academic, Tony Dundon, had replaced John Goodman (retired) and a shorter project concentrated on management attitudes. We also revisited a subsection of the 1992 sample, which led to the conclusion that it was ‘partnership or bust’ for most trade unions, especially in the private sector. By now, management had a low tolerance of trade unions that did not add value to the business. If unions were strong and disruptive, they were likely to be derecognized, but so too were weak and ineffectual unions that didn’t provide management with a credible and representative channel to the bulk of the workforce (Ackers et al. 2005). Otherwise, what we found was a relatively settled and normalized workplace participation regime, which mixed a varied menu of managerial EI and partnership, where unions survived, and managed through EI where they had not.

Many hoped that the 1990s would see the (north) Europeanization of British IR, including its approach to workplace participation. Indeed, between the 1988 Delors speech to British TUC and the signing of the Social Chapter in 1997, the EU was briefly regarded as the cavalry. But today, looking back, the European Works Councils (EWC) and the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Directives are seen to have had limited impact, mainly in those industries where trade unions were already strong (Johnstone and Ackers 2015). This is partly due to the weakness of the directives and their business-friendly implementation by New Labour, but also because union institutional interests and ideology still stand in the way of non-union centred forms of participation—as always, indicating a central weakness of British workplace participation. Here two barriers meet: the neo-liberal managerial stress on unitarist workplace co-operation and primarily individual EI forms; and a collective union focus on exclusively adversarial collective bargaining relations (Simms et al. 2013). At least British unions have actively engaged with EWCs , whereas dogmatic adherence to the ‘single-channel’ and fear of bypassing has made ICE another largely wasted opportunity.

A New ‘Big Society’ Employment Relations Agenda Before and After Brexit (Since 2010)?

New Labour’s last term saw partnership and other workplace initiatives disappear from the political agenda and public rhetoric. Gordon Brown, as Chancellor of Exchequer and later Prime Minister, replaced the earlier emphasis on civil society and a ‘third way’ (Ackers 2002), with globalized free markets (including labour markets) and high public spending plus tax credits—a state-socialist lever-pulling exercise destroyed by the 2008 global economic crisis. Ignored by government, trade unions were left to fester, abandon partnership, and become prey to the far left and an old rhetoric of fighting capitalism. As a result, organizing displaced partnership in the academic debate about trade union renewal. The election of the Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 capped this, turning away from the real issues at work in a liberal democratic society. More often though, on the academic front, this was a pessimistic time, when Hall and Soskice’s ‘varieties of capitalism’ and Paul Thompson ‘financialization’ theories apparently locked Britain into a neo-liberal employment ‘iron cage’. Little or nothing could be done, until we leapt back over the fence to co-ordinated capitalism (Ackers 2012, 2014a, b; Simms 2015).

Our 2015 collection, Johnstone and Ackers, Finding a Voice at Work? surveys all these layers of workplace participation in Britain: trade unions hanging on in private-sector partnerships or protected public sector contexts, with EI transmuted into employee engagement (Johnstone and Ackers 2015). But strong versions of workplace participation are notably absent, outside some workplace partnerships. The book has proved an obituary for the EU Social Model and initiatives such as EWCs and ICE (Timming and Whittall 2015; Dobbins and Dundon 2015). Overall, since 1979 there has been both dramatic change and remarkable continuity, as each new era’s initiatives piled up on top of what went before, leading to great diversity in the British workplace. Thus the partnership debate remains central to the still unionized public sector and to other private sector and company contexts. Though partnership rhetoric has become unfashionable in union and Labour circles, the practice of workplace partnership continues wherever unions survive. Indeed, it is a condition for their survival in the private sector. Many blue-chip British companies, such as Tesco, Jaguar-Rover, Rolls Royce, Royal Mail, and the major Banks, have workplace partnership in some shape or form (Johnstone 2015).

The unexpected 2016 Brexit vote has unpredictable consequences for workplace participation. One strand of Conservative and UKIP anti-EU politics was animated mainly by a neo-liberal hostility to EU Social Policy and all collective and statutory employment relations initiatives. Surprisingly, however, the post-Brexit era may offer new opportunities, as employment issues, like zero-hour contracts, have gained a new salience. For, paradoxically, Brexit, like Trump’s election, is an instance of suppressed political or societal voice? Both witnessed a disenfranchised domestic ‘working class’ protesting against liberal globalization and elite liberal (neo and social) policymakers. Moreover, the days of Thatcherism are over. Since 2008, there has been a ‘One-Nation’ drift to Conservative employment policy, with less emphasis on the free market and more interest in solving employment problems, through the living wage, workplace pensions, apprenticeships, and by addressing ‘bad capitalist’ behaviour. The TUC’s All Aboard (2016) supports ‘direct election’ to boards while still hoping to secure the single-union channel for unionized companies through the nomination system; an unlikely scenario from a Conservative government that has passed the restrictive 2016 Trade Union Act (Williamson 2016).

Thus, Brexit marks a new period for workplace participation in Britain, for better or worse (see Ackers 2017). The EU cavalry have returned home. The future is in British hands: whether voluntary or statutory, individual or collective. A total of 30% collective bargaining and 25% union membership render single-channel voice rarely, if ever, viable Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2016a). A more diverse and individualistic workforce makes collective voice more complex, and this may demand new strategies to become fully inclusive (Greene 2015). So, what’s next? Surprisingly, a 2016 Green Paper on Corporate Governance Reform, with EU echoes, has edged towards limited stakeholder involvement (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2016b). Earlier Theresa May had declared: ‘If I’m prime minister […] we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well’ (Sparrow et al. 2016; see also Hutchinson and Sutcliffe 2013). This stance has since been greatly watered down, but it does suggest that the future may hold new and unexpected possibilities for British workplace participation for those who like to travel hopefully.

In Sum: The British Workplace Participation Journey So Far

As a long-time advocate and researcher of workplace participation, the past four decades have proved largely a disappointment, extending a longer history of British missed opportunities. Thus far, Britain has failed to foster a successful workplace participation regime that combines strong trade unions in constructive partnership with management and the active engagement of ordinary employees. One factor has been a lack of institutional separation between bargaining and consultation—the latter being allowed to wither on the vine. Stubborn union insistence on a single channel, even after the 1980s union decline, has inhibited the development of independent representative participation structures. Managerial EI did expand after 1979, but the representative collective element was weak, and this gave limited power to ordinary employees. In many organizations, they provided little more than better downward management communications. Statutory EU initiatives have had very limited impact. Despite a recent, vague interest in employee engagement, across most of the economy, there is very limited workplace participation. In an economistic national culture, the quality of working life has never been a central public goal.

The main current academic IR debate revolves around which Voice approach works best for employees and employers? Three options are in play: (1) managerial EI versus (2) union representation versus (3) statutory forums (for the policy debate, see CIPD 2013; IPA n.d.). Are they: complimentary and best in full combination, as a neo-pluralist like me would suggest, or in direct competition, as radicals and unitarists would argue? But perhaps there is also a deeper set of questions about what constitutes genuine workplace participation that none of the three options really answer? Effective employee voice certainly needs institutions to provide employees as a collective with real independent say and the power to influence management decision-making. But voice institutions also need to have life to deliver real employee engagement. All this suggests the need for a serious academic and policy debate about what workplace participation or voice is for and what does it look like when it works.

Here, there are three overlapping prima facie positions. For one, voice is to improve organizational performance: it is interpersonal, individual and constructive, or ‘pro-social’ (Wilkinson and Barry 2016). This is micro-voice between managers and employees and includes HRM techniques such as 360 degree feedback and appraisal. The attitude towards employees is highly unitarist and instrumental, as found in American Organizational Behaviour or Psychology writing. In the second view, voice is there to regulate employers and rebalance power. This is the approach of much institutional pluralist and radical IR, centring on unions and statutory forums. It is critical yet equally instrumental, such that the state could do the job better—as we have seen with the success of the British living wage compared to the paltry gains from union organizing among the precariat. Arguably, neither of the above perspectives takes voice or workplace participation seriously as an end in itself. And this leads us to a third, neo-pluralist IR understanding of voice as providing social dialogue, in an expression of workplace democracy, including soft power, and as much about social process as economic outcomes. As Budd has argued, workplace participation may produce the instrumental HRM benefits of Efficiency and Equity, but Voice is also an intrinsic human goal; a value in itself (see Budd 2005).

The Future of Workplace Participation in a Post-Industrial Professional and Service Society

British IR academics have tended to study workers’ participation as ‘something out there’, in the real world of work. When I came onto the scene, that world was large-scale manufacturing, preferably engineering factories. Today, most of those have gone or shrunk as employers. Indeed, it’s no longer possible to talk about something called ‘plant-level workers’ participation’, with only 8% manufacturing employment. Britain has not just de-industrialized —as we feared in the 1980s—it has metamorphosed into a highly successful service economy. IR academics have been slow to acknowledge this. British Universities have been at the centre of this economic renaissance, albeit one characterized by growing economic inequality. We are no longer on the outside, looking in. Today almost 40% of union members are professionals; people like us (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2016a, b). In terms of workplace participation, we can divide the contemporary British economy into three different contexts: the majority non-union world where the best that can be hoped for is good quality managerial EI; large-scale manufacturing, banks, and some large retailers, where union-centred partnership still has some purchase; and the largely white-collar public sector with its long-standing national collective bargaining and partnership, coupled to traditions of professional decision-making. Surely British Universities, with their collegiate traditions, should provide a participatory exemplar.

If we judge them by institutional criteria, they do. All have collective bargaining, high levels of union membership and almost every EI structure you can imagine. Traditional Universities have departmental staff meetings and Senate’s with academic representation. Yet there is a widespread sense, across all British universities today, of a top-down, management-driven decision-making process. There are many possible explanations for this: the pressure of accreditation and other measurement, neo-liberalism and ‘new public management’, academic apathy, bureaucratic scale and a public sector tradition of expert management (Ackers and Reid 2016). Yet all this calls into question what workplace participation really means in the twenty-first century and what could make it a liberating personal experience. While Human Relations scholars have fetishized culture and the interpersonal, institutionalists have reified participation, counting the boxes rather than looking what’s inside them. If workplace participation is to mean anything, it has to bridge the gap between personal experience of work and the collective institutions that can enhance this. As Schumacher contemplated in Small is Beautiful: ‘What is the meaning of democracy, freedom, human dignity, standard of living, self-realization, fulfilment? Is it a matter of goods, or of people? Of course it is a matter of people. But people can only be themselves in small comprehensible groups. Therefore we must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units’ (Schumacher 1974, p. 62). Perhaps, more than anything, we need to allow these small, organic groups real decision-making power. That would be workplace participation.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Ackers
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Loughborough UniversityLoughboroughUK
  2. 2.Griffith UniversityBrisbaneAustralia

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