Achieving efficiency, equity and voice? Labour-management cooperation in UK financial services

Labor management co-operation is a perennial issue in British industrial relations research. Recent interest has focused upon workplace ‘partnership’ agreements, which have been a key plank of the New Labour government’s employment policy of ‘modernisation’ (Stuart and Martinez-Lucio, 2004). Although the European language of social partnership does not have an exact equivalent in the US literature, Kelly (2004) suggests that “the phrase ‘labor management co-operation for mutual gains’ comes closest in meaning (p.268). The term partnership remains notoriously ambiguous (Guest and Peccei, 2001; Terry, 2003), though most would agree that it concerns an attempt to shift the culture of employment relations away from zero-sum and adversarial relationships, towards co-operative employment relations, characterised by mutual trust and ultimately mutual gains (Stuart and Martinez-Lucio, 2004). Much of the literature has focused on whether partnership offers a valuable opportunity for the beleaguered trade union movement (Terry, 2003), and the extent to which it delivers mutual gains. Empirical evidence is mixed, though the most recent empirical studies have been critical in tone (Stuart and Martinez-Lucio, 2004), suggesting that – despite the mutual gains rhetoric - the ‘balance of advantage’ is often skewed in favour of management (Guest and Peccei, 2001). This paper presents the findings of a three-year research study conducted in the British financial service sector. Case studies were conducted in three diverse banking organisations, known as Nat Bank, Bu Soc and Web Bank. It is suggested that, in order to transcend the current polarised debate on mutual gains, it is important to reconsider what partnership is expected to achieve. Existing research has tended to focus on the labor/union outcomes of partnership, while a key aim of this study was to examine the way issues were handled, and how decision decisions are made, drawing upon the analytical framework proposed by Budd (2004). It asks to what extent partnership contributes to the moderation/accommodation of the competing employment relations objectives of efficiency, equity and voice? In this way, the study avoids the crude use of labor outcomes – such as job losses or pay levels – as simple indicators of the success or otherwise of partnership working. It is argued that, when judged in this light, partnership working can be seen to demonstrate more than a modicum of success in contributing to the regulation of the employment relationship.