Essay about Soma: Trade Union and Employee Relations

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``Looking out of the black-hole'' Non-union relations in an SME
Tony Dundon, Irena Grugulis

``Looking out of the black-hole''


Manchester School of Management, UMIST, Manchester, UK, and

Adrian Wilkinson

Loughborough University Business School, Loughborough, UK
Keywords Employee relations, Management styles, Small firms, Trade unions
Abstract Using a single case study approach this paper provides empirical evidence about managerial practices in a small, non-unionised firm which represents many of the features characteristic of the black-hole of ``no unions and no HRM''. The efficacy of recent union organising strategies is explored against the ``context'' of pleasant and unpleasant employee experiences, paternalistic management and labour and product markets. It is argued that the ideology of a ``family culture'' is a significant barrier to a new organising model of unionism.
Consequently, the evidence supports the case that small family-run firms can be exploitative and state support may be necessary to extend voice and collective representation.

Studies of employee relations have traditionally been located in large organisations. It is only recently that research has started to focus on small-tomedium sized enterprises (Goss, 1988; Rainnie, 1989; Scott et al., 1989; Roberts et al., 1992; Ram, 1994; Scase, 1995; Bacon et al., 1996; Wilkinson et al., 1998); though even here, little attention is devoted to the way employees are managed in the absence of a trade union or the prospects for union organising activity
(McLoughlin, 1996; Gall, 1997; Blyton and Turnbull, 1998). Furthermore, when research is located in a non-union context evidence is often derived from managerialist accounts of the atypical (larger) firms, such as M&S or IBM which claim to provide ``best practice HRM'' (Peach, 1983; Tse, 1985).
This article is concerned with two main issues. The first is to gain a deeper understanding of employment practices inside a small non-union firm; a ``blackhole'' organisation (Sisson, 1993; Guest and Conway, 1997). The second is to inform the current debate on union organising strategies in the context of small firms. The case study reviews management practices and employee attitudes and the implications for union organisation are considered.
Union organising and small firms
Recent debate has sought to analyse the conditions for union revitalisation by considering the individual and collective agency of labour in response to changing market conditions, privatisation and new management strategies
The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial assistance of the European Regional
Development Fund (ERDF).

Employee Relations,
Vol. 21 No. 3, 1999, pp. 251-266.
# MCB University Press, 0142-5455


(Fairbrother, 1989, 1996; Ackers and Black, 1992; Darlington, 1994; TUC, 1996,
1997; Heery, 1996, 1998b). These accounts tend to focus either on the framework for job regulation, the institutional role of the TUC or a resurgence of participative forms of unionism arising out of restructuring at workplace level. Defining New Unionism is not a straightforward task. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex debate, three particular perspectives can be identified (TUC, 1994, 1996, 1998; Heery, 1996, 1998b). The first of these is an
``organising'' model of unionism. The TUC's recently launched Organising
Academy marks a shift from service-based unionism to one centred on mobilisation ``from above''. New, often younger and more dynamic, ``organisers'' represent a cultural change with the aim of ``distant expansion'' (Kelly and
Heery, 1989) by targeting recruitment in new labour markets. The use of HRM techniques is a necessary part of this strategic organising model, as set out in the TUC's own mission statement and core objectives (TUC, 1995; Heery,
1998a). To date 33 organisers have been recruited and trained by the TUC