BUIRA 2016: Employment relations towards 2020 and beyond: reflection, prospects and opportunities

The Carriageworks, Millennium Square, Leeds LS2 3AD

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66th Annual Conference of the British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA), Leeds

This year’s annual BUIRA conference was held at the Carriageworks in the heart of the city of Leeds, from the 29th June to 1st July. The conference marked the last commitment of the outgoing team of BUIRA stewards from the University of Leeds. It was a well-attended conference, with a full and engaging academic and social programme. The focus of this year’s conference was ‘employment relations towards 2020 and beyond’. Over three days, 69 papers were presented to more than 100 delegates, with the conference drawing participation from numerous UK universities, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Two events prefaced the conference. First, BUIRA hosted a one day activists’ workshop at the University of Leeds, led by Dr Jane McAlevey, from the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University Law School. During the session Jane offered a series of insights into, and lessons from, her experiences of campaigning and deep organising in the American context. The workshop included participants from a number of British trade unions and was well received. Second, there was a pre-conference meeting of the ever expanding BUIRA doctoral network. This included sessions on critical friendship, led by Professor Melanie Simms (University of Leicester), and a panel on critical thinking and research innovation, involving Professors Chris Forde (Leeds), Melanie Simms and Mark Stuart (Leeds).

The conference itself kicked off with a plenary session on ‘Organising v Mobilizing and the fight for $15. The plenary speakers included Professor Tony Royle (York), Dr Jane McAlevey (Harvard) and Martin Smith (organiser for the GMB). Two further plenary sessions examined industrial relations in China and the living wage. The plenary on ‘current issues in Chinese industrial relations’, included contributions from Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla (Cornell), Professor Willy Brown (Cambridge) and Dr Jenny Chan (Oxford). The conference closed with an engaging session on ‘who pays the living wage? environmental, organisation and individual considerations’, with contributions from Professors Jane Parker (Massey), Edmund Heery (Cardiff) and Damian Grimshaw (Manchester).

A special stream on the living wage meant that this was a central focus of the conference. More generally, the breadth of papers was illustrative of the vibrancy of the field of industrial relations in Britain and overseas. Papers covered topics such as work and care, welfare and work, the junior doctors dispute, the informal economy, austerity, union learning, health and safety at work, flexible working practices and zero hours contracts, comparative employment relations and global unions and transnational governance, as well as union organising and collective bargaining.

After busy days presenting and debating at conference, delegates were also to relax and catch up with old friends and colleagues over dinner, including a curry on the first night and for the main conference dinner at the Lakeside in the beautiful setting of Roundhay Park. The prize for best paper by a doctoral student, sponsored by the British Journal of Industrial Relations, was awarded to Chris Mclachlan (University of Leeds/ Hertfordshire University) for his paper entitled ‘Socially responsible restructuring: an exploration of the roles of HRM and unions’.