How Industrial Revolution Shaped Employment Relations

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This essay examines how two different theories analyze the impacts of the industrial revolution on employment relations. It looks into how theorists argued on the relationship between the industrial revolution and labor relations, and the role played by the Industrial revolution in shaping employment and labor force across the United Kingdoms, Europe, America and elsewhere in the world. The paper has taken into consideration several historical literature to help compare and contrast how two theories have construed the relationship between Industrial relations and labor. To provide an insight into what is to be analyzed, a brief review on the Industrial and employment relations has also been given. The essay presents an ideological framework from which future research on the same area of study may be bridged.


Theorists and researchers have broadly studied and analyzed the impacts of the Industrial Revolution on employment and labor relations from different socio-economic and cultural perspectives. The most influential of the studies were those conducted by Karl Heinrich Marx, 19th Century German philosopher. Other researchers, sociologists and philosophers have borrowed significantly from the Marxist economic and political ideologies to help showcase their research studies. For this essay, two of the theoretical dogmas have comparatively been used to explain the extent to which the industrial revolution may have shaped employment relations.

Industrial Revolution at a glance

Between the 18th and 19th centuries, a major global revolution took place, leading to significant changes in the socio-economic and cultural aspects of life. The revolution marked a historical turning point in technology, agriculture, mining and manufacturing. It began from the United Kingdom to Europe and North America, then consequently spread to the rest of the world (Hyman, 1975).

Remarkably between within that period of industrial revolution, the world experienced unprecedented economic and population growth. Peter and Wilkinson Adriana, in their work titled,” Understanding Work and Employment…, note that between the two centuries that the revolution took place, there was a perpetual improvement in the living standards of the masses (Peter, A., & Wilkinson, A.,2003). Concurrent quantitative surveys conducted within this timeframe also indicated a rise in both the population and the living standards of the average man. World economic growth was at its best (Hyman, 1975).

The industrial revolution was characterized by the use of machines to replace manual human labor. This led to greater industrial productivities, as the machines performed beyond human capabilities. According to Hyman, there was an enormous socio-economic change across the global society. It was a remarkable point in world history, with technological innovations transforming the world in every sphere of life (Hyman, 1975).

Review on Employment Relations

Employment relations have commonly been referred to as Industrial relations. In some cases though, the use of the concept “Employment relations” has been rampant. Rasmussen defines the concept as a field of study that is concerned with the inter-relationships between the industrial and non-industrial employments (Rasmussen, 2009).

Employment or industrial relations has also been called labor relations, mainly because it looks into the relationship between labor and employment, the factors determining the co-existence of the two. In a more simplistic statement, we may be talking of the relationship between employees and their employers (Peter, A., & Wilkinson, A., 2003).

Theoretical Perspectives

Three major theoretical perspectives have commonly been used by industrial researchers in explaining, evaluating, comparing, contrasting and analyzing industrial relations. This essay, however, concentrates on two of the three theoretical presumptions to compare, contrast and analyze how the industrial revolution may have shaped employment relations. Among them are, the Marxist theory, popularly known as radical theory or the conflict model, and the pluralist theory (Kaufman, 2004). Excluded from this list is the Unitarian theory.

The Marxist theory, put forward by Karl Heinrich Marx, was a move that was essentially made to counter the Industrial revolution. In this theory, Karl Marks posits that the industrial revolution was a force that polarized society into two, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. According to Marx, “Bourgeoisie were those people in ownership of factories, lands and means of production” (Kaufman, 2004). proletariat on the other hand were those people he termed as “the working class” (Kaufman, 2004). The Bourgeoisie were masters to the proletariat, employers and employees respectively.

Under Marxist radical theory, employment relations perceive the society of capitalists as a society fundamentally divided by the interest between labor and capital. This kind of discernment radically contradicts the nature of the workplace relations, with a view that there are inequalities in economic wealth and power (Rasmussen, 2009).

According to the pluralist theory, an industry was construed as “a society made up of different but powerful entities with rights and loyalties, independence, leadership and objectives” (Rasmussen, 2009). In the pluralist society, we will actually be talking of trade unions and management. Diverging from Marxists, pluralists contend that employers are not concerned with control or enforcement of some sort of rules or regulations. They are for the idea that mutual understanding and cooperation are the way to go (Rasmussen, 2009). Employees, in this case, are legitimately represented by trade unions and the management deals not with the employees, but with the union that is autonomous and legal.

In this theory of pluralism, there is no one center of power, but different centers of power and wealth. So that none of the entities dominates over the other. In this view, employers or capitalist as Marx prefer to call them, and labor or employees all have some rights and authorities independent from each other (Kaufman, 2004).

When the management comes into conflict with labor, there will be coordination and persuasion on both sides on how to resolve the conflict. Labor in this case is constituted in the form of trade unions. This scenario contradicts the Marxist or the radical assumption whereby employers or the management for that matter will have their say on how it wants the conflict be resolved.Labor, what Karl Marx calls the working class, has little control over management, or factory owners (Hyman, R., 1975, & Snooks, G., 2000).


The metamorphosis that took place in the industrial sectors posed many challenges to industrial relations. Relationships between employers and employees took a rather peculiar shift to compromise with the changing world (Hyman, 1975). Karl Heinrich Marx must have overseen the consequences of industrial revolution before his works.

Marx, whose work dominated the 19th-century philosophies, derived his radical theory more or less from the growing experience of industrialization. He perceived the emerging Industrial world as a society composed of two groups, employers and employees, masters and slaves, factory owners and factory users, whichever way you prefer to label them, the difference is the same (Snooks, 2000).

In the Marxist Industrial world, employers or capitalists, after realizing there was increasingly less manual labor on demand, employment relations became a great opportunity for them to utilize human resources in making valuable productions in their factories. According to Marx, capitalists attempted to make human beings work like machines, to save on the huge expenses that were involved while using machines and avoiding manual labor (Hyman, R., 1975, & Snooks, G., 2000).Human labor was a cheaper alternative compared to machines, and so, capitalists took advantage of the decreasing demand for the labor force to enrich themselves, making good capital as the name suggests.

Reading from Hyman’s work, many people were searching for jobs, and only a few of them were being absorbed by the factory owners. This was because unlike before, manual labor jobs were now handed over to the machines, forcing employers to reduce their human labor force. Those left to work did so by their masters’ terms and conditions. Negotiation for wages and/or salaries was becoming impossible if you had to secure your occupation for some time (Hyman, 1975).

Contrary to the Marxists phase of Industrial relations, pluralist theorists had their stand to take. In this society, both the employers and the employees had a say. Going by this notion, the factory owners did not have the audacity of making laborers compete with machines. There were labor unions watching closing on such moves by the masters. The relationship between these societies was perceived to be a mutual relationship that involved both persuasions and negotiations. In the pluralist Industrial world, laborers had the right to state their case on wages and salaries they received from their employers. At the same time, employers had the right to choose who to work with and on what terms of the agreement. Different from a Marxist society where the managers were more after wealth than long-term relations, pluralists had an opposing view, that is, seeking to maintain the relationships contrary to accumulating wealth (Rasmussen, 2009).


Generally, the Industrial Revolution played a major role in shaping employment relations. This has been analyzed and justified by both the Marxist and the Pluralist theoretical perspectives. The two theories take different angles of view on how the industrial revolution could shape the relationship between employees and employers in industrial institutions. The kind of society seen in Marxist presumptions is not synonymous with the one we see in pluralists’ world. These two seem to contradict each other to some extent, but with the pluralist theory promising more good than harm compared to the authoritative Marxist theory.


Hyman, R. Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction. New York. Macmillan. 1975.

Kaufman, B. Theoretical Perspectives on Work and the Employment Relationship. Industrial Relations Research Association. London. Oxford Press.2004.

Peter, A., & Wilkinson, A. Understanding Work and Employment: Industrial Revolution. New York. Oxford Press. 2003. 89-231.

Rasmussen, E. Employment Relations in New Zealand. Pearson Education. Auckland.2009.

Snooks, G. Was the Industrial Revolution Necessary? Relations in Transition. London & New York.Oxford University Press. 2000

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