Generally, the state plays a dual role in industrial life as an employer as well as a mediator in the event of industrial conflicts. It is also capable of ensuring better industrial environment to the workers by ensuring fair wages, job security and good working conditions at workplaces.
Primarily the relation is between workers and employers but such relation invariably involves the participation of the state. That means every industrial relations system involves three groups of actors: (i) Workers and their organisations, (ii) Managers/employers and their organisations; and (iii) Government agencies/machinery concerned with work community.
Industrial relations arise out of the prime economic relationship in society which is the buying and selling of labour power taking place in between the workers who own no other means of production and employers who are owners of capital. They belong to two great classes - capitalists (employers) and labourers (employees)- directly facing each other. The problems of industrial relations in industrial societies cannot be resolved permanently. A dynamic frictional conflict situation between labour and management is always prevailing in the field of industrial relations.
It is evident that government and state are closely related and government speaks on behalf of the state although the institutions - the government, the military and the police, the judiciary and parliamentary assemblies - make up the state and their interrelationships shape the form of the state system. The elaboration of state institution is directly commensurate and associated with the development of antagonistic class interests and their functions have always included the reinforcement of the system of class rule enshrined in the existing social order by suppressing disobedience by subordinate classes. Moreover, the nature of the state is most significant in determining the legal environment within which industrial relations function.
At present, the state performs an increasingly important role as an active factor in economic life. However, today's state deals with labour-management relations directly or indirectly as any other private entrepreneur does. The recent tendency to develop under-developed and developing economies along planned lines usually helps the state overcome the open and sharp conflicts between workers and their employers. Needless to say, the state has always the provision to set up a legal and administrative framework like collective bargaining conciliation, arbitration and adjudication for the peaceful settlement of disputes among employers and workers.
Labour and capital, represented by trade union leaders and management respectively, are two vital factors in the industrial arena. By definition, their interest is opposed to each other but opposition might be reduced in order to obtain a reasonable working relation between them. The state can also be considered as an actor within industrial relations performing a number of distinct roles. It acts as a third-party regulator promoting a legal framework which institutes general ground rules for union-management interaction, particularly in the modality of collective bargaining. All modern states try to fix the rules of the game by specifying tactics like collective bargaining conciliation, mediation, arbitration and adjudication with a view to facilitating the settlement of industrial dispute. The role of the state as a direct participant in industrial relations is more conspicuous in the public sector than anywhere else, where it is the state's additional responsibility to oversee the smooth running of the bargaining machinery because of its acceptance of the onerous duty of employership. So, the state may also be identified as a regulator of minimum wages of labour. Sometimes the government resorts to the expediency of monetary doles to workers in order to have the uncomfortable results of collective agreements modified or to diffuse tensions there from. This, in turn, affects the wage structure of the private sector as it must confirm to the pay guidelines set by the government.
In advanced societies, where democracy is an active institution, workers and employers are free to form their own organisations or join any fraternity by choice through which they are allowed to settle their differences. The state tries to play a neutral role between labour and management in such societies. In developing society, where the basic rights of workers are thwarted or denied by employers, the normal industrial life is often disturbed and thereby, industrialisation suffers, and workers, bargaining power is weak wherefore the management finds it easy going to buy the labour power at low prices.
In capitalist societies, state intervention maintains impartiality and handles industrial relations in a proper way. It normally functions as the check-and-balance mechanism in the relations between workers and employers so that a steady economic growth is sustained in the interest of both capital and labour. To minimise industrial disputes, the state intervenes in numerous ways from non-judicial to judicial methods of dispute settlement. But, in least developed countries and developing countries, the state does not maintain neutrality in dealing with the maters of industrial relations. Most of the times, they take sides with capital in times of a crisis and thereby the interest of the working class is constantly thwarted by a vicious cycle.
The modern states are expected to perform the role of mediators in between labour and management so that neither party can disturb the fabric of capitalism. Where the state is also the employer, its involvement in labour-management relations becomes more direct and comprehensive. It has to deal with labour unions through management with a view to bringing down (a) the discontent and militancy of labour (b) the incidence and impact of strike and thereby to improve productivity and profitability of the industry concerned. The state has also to ensure better life and democratic right to workers.
Because of political divisions among the workers, any move towards the formation of a common platform of workers at the national level has been disturbed. Moreover, a drama of shifting political allegiance has brought the situation to such a pass that the trade union leaders are now habitually drawn towards the ruling party, whatever it is.
State intervention in industrial relations is not new in the world. Military regimes are more regressive than their civilian counterparts in order to exercise control over labour and their unions and the government tryies to occupy as many workplace unions as possible within the shortest possible time. As a result, the labour union is found to be anemic, devoid of true democratic values and anarchic without a vision. Even some collective bargaining agent (CBA) leaders gradually forget their duties and responsibilities as workers' representative and protectors of workers' interests. Most of the times labour movement is under way, it ends with a whimper rather than a bang, and it is the leaders who reap benefits from it. Thus, the future of the countrys' labour movement as it is, is bleak.
Professor Dr. Md. Abu Taher is Member, University Grants Commission of Bangladesh & Director, Board of Directors, Jibon Bima Corporation, Dhaka