Senior managers of industrial relations in large multi‐plant companies are faced by both centrifugal and centripetal forces and ask: “How can we achieve the benefits of decentralisation while at the same time maintaining centralised control?” In response to these countervailing pressures, senior managers create the appearance of autonomy for plant managers but in reality exercise centralised authority over major industrial relations decisions. To achieve this, managers at head office promote an ideology of decentralisation while actually practising central control. Local managers' autonomy on major industrial relations issues is largely a myth, perpetuated by formally decentralised management and bargaining structures, and techniques designed to enhance the independence of each plant. Central managers' authority is exercised by making all major decisions at head office and by co‐ordinating plant industrial relations through a variety of measures. Two factors are examined to explain this inconsistency between the levels of decision making over important issues and the level at which collective agreements are made—first, the changes in bargaining structure, and in particular the move towards single‐employer bargaining, and, second, developments in organisational structures and control techniques, especially those associated with divisionalised organisations.
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