Opening the black box

Practices and processes in European sectoral social dialogue

Sabrina Weber, Pforzheim University
Barbara Bechter, Durham University Business School
Manuela Galetto, University of Warwick
Bengt Larsson, University of Gothenburg
Tom Prosser, Cardiff University


Research on the European sectoral social dialogue (ESSD) has highlighted two aspects. First, that there is a huge variance between the existing 43 sectoral social dialogue committees (SSDC) (Degryse, 2015; Keller and Sörries, 1998) which is often attributed to certain sector-specific characteristics (de Boer et al., 2005; Leisink, 2002). Second, ESSD has been characterized as a multilevel setting where coordination efforts not only between social partners, but also within the respective organisations with a wide range of (national) actors must be achieved (Keller and Weber, 2011; Keune and Marginson, 2013). However, where and how exactly “the sector” makes a difference in this multilevel setting is largely unclear.

We open up the black box of sectoral practices and processes by investigating two SSDCs in more depth, namely Hospital (HOSP) and Metal (MET). The two SSDCs share a number of similarities – such as the establishment date of SSDC or the number and kind of European organizations involved (one single trade union, one single employer (not: business) organisation). Moreover, the two SSDCs have also managed to reach a similar number of joint texts. However, the focus of these joint texts differs: whereas the SSDC MET concentrates on industrial policy, the SSDC HOSP more closely considers  working conditions. Our paper therefore takes a micro perspective and investigates the practices and processes within the SSDCs, such as topic selection.


Our argument is twofold. First, we argue that it is useful to analyze SSDCs as a multilevel ‘network of organisations’ (Metcalfe, 1976; 1994) (represented by national and EU actors in SSDCs) that must ensure that the organisations participating in SSDCs develop capacities for working together effectively to produce desired outcomes. Modes of management/coordination in such networks may imply rules and procedures and the specification of output, or may be characterised by the formation of task forces and teams. Second, we advance the argument that such practices of coordination to achieve a desired outcome are shaped by (key) actors (Brass et al., 2004). In particular, in the multilevel setting of ESSD, national key actors define “the sector” and the sectoral practices by involving themselves in SSDCs.


We find that the management/coordination capacity of both SSDCs is high. However, the variance in output (focus) is reflected in different sectoral practices. Whereas the practices to reach the desired outcome in SSDC HOSP are characterized by horizontal coordination leading to a ‘problem-solving oriented social dialogue structure’, SSDC MET instead shows a rather hierarchical coordination approach (‘political management structure’). These differing SSDC practices are shaped by key national actors and we identify a very similar set of key actors (countries) in the two SSDCs.


The paper draws on a range of qualitative data including interview and documentary sources at the national, EU and sectoral levels. First, qualitative data from interviews with social partner representatives and Commission representatives at the EU level in the sectors HOSP and MET.  A second source of data are selected joint SSDC texts, such as rules of procedure and working programmes. This data is completed by observations of SSDC meetings and, whenever appropriate, by national level interview data (e. g. where topic selection is mentioned).


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The research for this paper was financially supported by the European Commission, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. Call for proposals: Improving expertise in the field of industrial relations. Project VP/2016/0092 (2016-2018).