Discussion paper

DP145 From Labour History to the History of Industrial Relations

This article advances a new conception of labour history as the history of industrial relations, understood broadly as the changing relationships between workers, trade unions, employers and the state. The first half of the paper examines the major interpretative traditions in British labour history, from the Webbs and the 'Oxford School' to the postwar social historians and the 'rank-and-filists'. It shows that despite their many differences, both institutionalists and social historians explain the development of labour institutions by reference to the objective interests of social groups, and goes on to raise some theoretical objections to this form of explanation. The second half of the paper draws on the findings of recent research on the history of work and industrial relations in late nineteenth and twentieth century Britain to argue that relationships between workers and employers were shaped less by informal groups or spontaneous social and economical processes than by institutional forces: by organizations such as trade unions, shop stewards' committees, business enterprises, employers' associations and the state; and by the rules and procedures governing their interaction such as collective agreements, conciliation and arbitration boards, wages councils and legislati.


Zeitlin, J (1986), ‘DP145 From Labour History to the History of Industrial Relations‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 145. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp145