Annual Conference 4-6th July 2023

Pre-Conference PhD Workshop 3rd July 2023

Conference Programme

BUIRA AGM 12:45-13:45 Wednesday 5th July Room: 2D1


University of Bristol. Priory Road Complex

Conference Plenaries/panels

From Donovan to Taylor

Jon Cruddas MP

Ruth Dukes (University of Glasgow)

Peter Turnbull (University of Bristol)

Intersectionality, Migration and Work

Bridget Anderson (University of Bristol)

Vera Weghmann (University of Greenwich)

Sundari Anitha (University of Lincoln)

UK and Global Strikes

Jane Holgate (University of Leeds)

Mike Clancy (Prospect)

Ian Allinson (Industrial Coordinator, Manchester TUC)


When industrial relations (IR) was at the top of the policy agenda in the 1960s, with growing concerns about low productivity and ‘wage drift’ adding to inflation, frequently attributed to the system of collective bargaining and the growing number of (unofficial) strikes, a Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations was established to investigate (Donovan 1968). It is widely recognised that the Donovan Royal Commission set new standards in evidence-based policy making (Brown 2019), in stark contrast to the recent Taylor Review (2017) of modern working practices (Bales et al 2018). While there might be a tendency for IR research to ‘explain too little with too much’ (Bain and Clegg 1974: 106), the Taylor Report evidently tried to explain too much with too little.

Although it was unusual in the 1960s for a Royal Commission to call on independent expertise and to commission research under the direction of an academic (WEJ McCarthy), this created a legacy of high-quality survey and case study research that informed government policy on employment and industrial relations for decades to come (Brown 2019: 428). As no original research was carried out for the Taylor Review, it is perhaps no exaggeration to misquote Mark Twain and proclaim the death of evidence-based IR policymaking – or least the involvement of IR academics in such policymaking (Ackers and Wilkinson 2005: 450). To do so, however, would be to ignore the prominence of IR issues – the ‘politics of work’ – during the pandemic (Hodder and Martinez Lucio 2021) and government proposals designed to further restrict workers’ rights in the wake of the wave of industrial disputes in the ‘post-pandemic’ summer and autumn of 2022. The airwaves are once more ‘all in a flutter’ (or in modern-day parlance ‘all in a Twitter’) with talk of a ‘winter of discontent’, harking back to the ‘dark days’ of 1979 (Milner 2022), with some of the architects behind prominent disputes of the past, such as the docks dispute in 1989 (Turnbull et al, 1992), once more entering the fray. As in the 1980s, it would appear the policy debate on the future of IR is alive and kicking.

If that is indeed the case, what would a Donovan Report for the 21st Century look like? Clearly it would need to look beyond the activities of trade unions and employers’ associations, although these remain core concerns of IR research (Gooberman and Hauptmeier 2020), even if some unions look and act differently today as they seek to create new ‘communities of struggle’ (Però 2020; Smith 2022). Industrial conflict is never far from the surface, even in the new service economy (Royle and Rueckert 2022), and there is widespread recognition that strikes are not the only manifestation of contemporary unrest in the workplace. That said, there are nowadays alternative routes to dispute resolution (Hann et al 2019; Saundry et al 2016) when compared to the procedures in place in the 1960s at home (Marsh 1966; Marsh and McCarthy 1968) and abroad (Stieber 1968). Whereas the Donovan Report focused heavily on the role of shop stewards (McCarthy and Parker 1968), today there is more interest in non-union forms of worker representation (Heery 2010) and silence as well as voice in the workplace (Barry and Wilkinson 2016; Donaghey et al 2011). Concern over (regulated) overtime (Whybrew 1967) has been replaced by concerns over (less regulated or seemingly unregulated) excessive working time (Organization 2015) and zero-hours contracts (Farina et al 2020).

Policymakers were fixated with ‘restrictive labour practices’ in the 1960s (Nichols 1986) and the potential of ‘productivity bargaining’, epitomised by the landmark study of Esso’s Fawley refinery (Flanders 1964), whereas today the puzzle is the flat-lining of productivity since 2010. The Donovan Commission was arguably unable to ‘break their visceral faith in the virtues of voluntarism in British collective bargaining’ (Brown 2019: 427), but in the face of labour market deregulation over the past 40 years, workers and organised labour have turned increasingly to the courts to vindicate their fundamental rights, calling into question the ruling theory of British labour law (collective laissez-faire) and calling for a reappraisal of the role of courts (Bogg 2022).

Other concerns that feature prominently in work and employment research today were either not on the radar or not part of the reality of industrial relations in the Donovan era, most notably equality and intersectionality (Lee and Tapia 2021), gig work and the platform economy (Joyce 2020; Srnicek 2017; Wood and Lehdonvirta 2021), work-life-balance (Warren 2021), new information technologies and the future of work, the climate crisis and sustainable jobs. In the interim, Britain joined and left the European Union (EU), raising concerns over labour migration and employment rights in Singapore-on-Thames (Woolfson, 2017), and the UK is currently gripped by a cost of living crisis and further austerity measures that will no doubt hit the public sector especially hard. The living wage (Dobbins and Prowse 2021) and fair pay agreements are firmly on the agenda.

We invite papers for the 2023 BUIRA Annual Conference that reflect on the core concerns of the Donovan Commission and their contemporary relevance. In particular, authors are encouraged to reconsider:

  • the role of trade unions and employers’ associations
  • patterns of industrial conflict, especially in the context of a cost-of-living crisis
  • changes to employment law and the promotion of workers’ rights
  • the role of IR/HRM in promoting/impeding high(er) productivity

We also invite papers that reflect on contemporary concerns that were not on the agenda of the Donovan Commission, in particular:

  • employee voice/silence, employment relations in non-union firms, and alternative dispute resolution
  • work in the ‘gig economy’ and new (precarious) contractual arrangements
  • the digital economy and the future of work
  • work and employment in a sustainable/green economy
  • (in)equality and intersectionality
  • industrial relations post-Brexit

We ask all authors to reflect on any policy implications/proposals that derive from their analysis.