Track 3: Workers’ Voice and Industrial Democracy

Europe is the origin of a rich variety of different concepts of industrial and workplace democracy. For decades the incompatibility of these traditions was more an obstacle than a fertile ground for a strong European representation of workers’ voice. Meanwhile considerable progress has been made regarding workers’ participation in Europe as well as beyond. Yet democracy is threatened at different levels and from different sides, in particular by the rise of authoritarian political movements and new forms of racism, sexism, classism and religious fundamentalism that also affect workplace relations. At the same time new technologies lead to new challenges as well as opportunities for democratic participation. Against this background we want to discuss the future of democratic participation at local, national, European and international levels.

‘Subordination in solidarity’

The labour law of workers’ cooperatives – insights for the future of workers’ protection?

Andrea Iossa, Lund University
Miriam Kullmann, WU Vienna University of Economics and Business

For many years, labour law has been the institution that served to protect the (majority of the) workforce. Historically based on an exchange, labour law ensures the authority of the employer over the employees while recognising their rights before the employer itself. Flexible forms of work inexorably are on the rise since the 1970s/80s, and business strategies to increase the hiring of self-employed workers. While not hampering the authority of the employer, this trend has altered company structures as well as it has undermined the role of labour law as protective instrument and deprived those workers from acceding to certain employment rights that preserve their dignity. It is thus apposite to hypothesise that if an increasing number of workers is not working under a relationship of subordination which is key to the standard employment contract anymore, which role then is left for labour law as a means to regulate the labour market while protecting the workforce?

One form of work (institution) that has received only scant attention in the labour law debate is that of workers' cooperatives. Often seen a means to achieve more democratic control over economic production and business organisation, workers’ cooperatives challenge the hierarchical structures put forward in the capitalist system, without however denying the need for rules to regulate the organisation of production. Assuming that labour law in principle has not lost its value to give rights and disperse obligations, in this paper we aim to address the question what kind of labour law would be needed for workers’ cooperatives. To do so, we will select a few cases of existing workers' cooperatives in Italy and the Netherlands and looking at their internal statutes and how the work is organised and regulated, against the background of the applicable regulations in the respective countries studied. We hope to find insights that may perhaps be used to contribute to the theorisation of labour law, and the concept of subordination which is the core of the employment relationship in particular.

Integrating direct employee voice within the framework of worker representation

The role of an Italian trade union in ‘organising disintermediation’

Ilaria Armaroli, University of Bergamo, ADAPT – Association for International and Comparative Studies in the Field of Labour Law and Industrial Relations

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-31-Armaroli.pdf

It has been argued that «worker voice used to mean trade unions» (Ackers 2015, 95) and that unions represented the almost universal public policy answer to the need of worker voice. Despite differences in trade union membership, power and role in the workplace and society, this condition did characterise the vast majority of European countries until the end of the Twentieth century.

However, with very few national exceptions, the reality today has changed on a global scale. Circumstances, such as the decline in trade union density and collective bargaining coverage, the reduced union political influence and the increasing marginality of union discourses in society are raised many times by literature (e.g. Addison et al. 2013; Carrieri, Feltrin 2016; Vanchon et al. 2016). The main reasons behind these developments are often ascribed to deindustrialisation, globalisation and international migration, government measures in response to economic crisis, technological and organisational developments, the shift in the forms of employment from full-time permanent to precarious and temporary status, the increasing diversification of the workforce and the apparently greater influence of individualism on society (e.g. Lee 2005; Blanchflower, Bryson 2009; Carrieri, Treu 2013; Murray et al. 2013; Marginson 2015; Rodrik 2015; Vanchon et al. 2016).

Interestingly though, while debating the presumed crisis of trade unionism, a new trend has simultaneously emerged and triggered the interest of researchers: the spread of new forms of employee voice. The reference is generally to teamwork, high commitment human resource management, high-performance work practices, etc., developed in traditional industries since the late 1970s. The rationale behind the adoption of these practices is usually linked to the business case argument (Johnstone, Ackers 2015, 8), deriving from the assumption that far from exclusively being the building block of industrial democracy (Webb, Webb 1897), employee voice is today an essential link in the quest for increased organisational performance.

As regards the relationship with unions, literature tends to consider these direct forms of employee voice as either a substitute for indirect employee voice, organised by trade unions (e.g. Leana et al. 1992; Reshef et al. 1999; Kaufman, Levine 2000), or a complementary agent of workers’ representatives in guaranteeing a balance between efficiency, equity and voice at workplaces (e.g. Gill 2009; Bryson et al. 2013; Pohler, Luchak 2014). Within the framework of this lively debate, however, no one seems to call into question the management-led nature of direct employee participation practices.

Against this background, this paper intends to investigate an almost neglected research topic: the role of trade unions as promoters, rather than victims or antagonists, of non-union and direct employee voice. This trade union behaviour is synthetised via the expression "organising disintermediation", whereby "disintermediation" hints at the more individualised (since not mediated by trade unions) labour-management relationships entailed by the direct forms of employee voice, and "organising" refers to the proactive role of unions in their promotion, regulation and implementation.

More specifically, by focusing on the experience of a local metalworkers’ organisation in Italy, namely FIM-CISL of Brescia, this paper wants to shed light on the reasons behind and the ways through which a local trade union in a mixed market economy (Molina, Rhodes 2006) comes to promote forms of work organisation that enhance direct employee participation in a traditional industry. To do so, it essentially relies on the method of participant observation developed from May 2016 to April 2018 and lying in the analysis of primary documents (e.g. company-level collective agreements, business and action plans, etc.), on-site visits, attendance at negotiation tables and union internal meetings, interviews with local union officials, union delegates in companies and an external expert involved in the experience.

Findings from the case study reveal the importance for trade unions, as characterised by a non-unitary and multi-dimensional nature (Hoxie 1914; Craft 1991; Frege, Kelly 2003; Drakopoulos, Katselidis 2014), to bridge between apparently opposite domains (i.e. environmental pressures and union specific identity) and logics (i.e. membership and influence (Schmitter, Streeck 1999)), in order to overcome their presumed “lagged behaviour” in response to external challenges (Craft 1991) and successfully take part in current organisational transformations without jeopardising their traditional functions. More precisely, it was only after interpreting the market-led trend towards direct employee participation not only as an enabler for greater firms’ competitiveness but also as a potential ally for the realisation of union subjective goals, that FIM-CISL of Brescia decided to embark on the road of "organised disintermediation". Secondly, the implementation of actions aimed at ensuring consensus and legitimacy from workers, along with actions intended to convince managers to cooperate, was necessary to allow the trade union to engage in a new path without contravening its traditional duties vis-à-vis the rank-and-file. With specific regard to the impact of this new path, the analysis shows that, by turning direct employee voice from a separate mechanism into an integrated part of worker representation, the approach of "organising disintermediation" invites to rethink the meaning of direct employee voice in unionised settings and the role it can play in triggering, rather than merely challenging, trade union action and renewal. Finally, far from exclusively inspiring reflections upon the interplay between direct and representative employee voice, the union’s commitment to "organise disintermediation" paves the way for the involvement of new players in the traditional action field (i.e. external consultants), the appearance of new instruments (i.e. joint action plans for organisational innovation processes) and the enlargement of the area of labour-management interactions beyond the collective bargaining domain; in so doing, it is likely to bring about change in industrial relations as a whole.

Transnational industrial democracy?

Workers‘ voice across borders in transnational companies

Isabel da Costa, CNRS, IDHES, ENS Paris Saclay

The debate about what kind of voice, democracy or participation workers should have at the workplace and as citizens in the political arena, has been on-going ever since Sidney and Beatrice Webb coined the term "Industrial Democracy" over a century ago. A variety of alternative visions uphold by different social movements emerged throughout the 20th century across the globe, intended on bringing democracy to the workplace and the political arena. Unlike a century ago, when the Webbs addressed alliances between the Trade Unions and the Labour Party, in this era of globalization and digitalization, disaffiliation from unions and distrust of political elites, distressed workers and citizens are increasingly attracted to modern day Populist and totalitarian rhetorics that promise divisive and nationalist solutions to their problems.

In an increasingly globalized world and digital economy is employee participation and the regulation of employment relations going to remain at the national level or is some form(s) of industrial and representative democracy possible beyond national borders?

Based on past and ongoing research (da Costa and Rehfeldt, 2008; Telljohann, da Costa et al 2009; da Costa and Rehfeldt, 2011; da Costa et al 2012; da Costa 2017) about transnational company agreements (TCAs), this communication proposes to contribute to the debate about what kind of voice, democracy or participation employees and their representatives have when they work for a global company, by addressing the issue at the transnational level, i.e. by analyzing the representation of workers/employees at the level of transnational companies and thus the consequences of globalization in terms of the democratization, or lack of democracy, of employment relations.


  • da Costa I. (2017), Cross Borders Social Dialogue and Industrial Relations: Recent Trends and Issues, ILO Working Paper (unpublished report).
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  • da Costa I., Rehfeldt U. (2011), « Les négociations collectives transnationales: dynamiques des accords-cadres européens et mondiaux », La Revue de l’IRES, n°71, 2011/4, p.95-126.
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Transnational company agreements signed in German-based MNCs

As a tool to introduce participatory experiences in the context of Italian industrial relations

Volker Telljohann, IRES Emilia-Romagna

In the post-war period the Italian industrial relations were characterised by a relative absence of participatory experiences. The modest diffusion of significant participation experiences are to be sought in the tradition of the industrial relations system that in the past was characterised by an elevated level of conflict and, as a consequence, by a particularly critical attitude towards the participation models practiced in other countries. Trade unions as well as employers have always preferred to regulate industrial relations through collective bargaining. Due to the voluntaristic tradition in Italian industrial relations and the employers’ and trade unions’ critical stance towards participation there is almost no institutionalisation of participation rights.

However, in recent years in Italy there has been a growing attention to participatory experiences in other countries and in particular to the German model of co-determination. On the one hand, this interest was very much linked to the role of co-determination practices in the context of the crisis. On the other hand, due to the growing foreign direct investments of German-based multinational companies in Italy concrete experiences of co-determination were developed in Italian affiliates of German MNCs.

Among the analysed cases the most significant cases regard the Italian enterprises belonging to the Volkswagen Group. In these cases a transnational company agreement signed at Volkswagen, the so-called Charter on Labour relations, provides for the implementation and application of a set of co-determination rights originally laid down in the German Works Constitution Act.

The paper will show how these co-determination rights were implemented in the context of the Italian industrial relations systems which is characterised by a low level of institutionalisation. It will be analysed which were the preconditions and the mechanisms provided for by the national industrial relations systems that were necessary for a successful implementation of the rights provided by the TCA.

On the basis of our analysis, it also seems to be important that future innovations in industrial relations aim to develop a hypothesis for integrating and coordinating the various forms of representative participation and direct involvement in order to overcome the traditional limitations of participative experiences. From a trade union point of view, the problem regards the fact that companies are increasingly aiming at forms of direct employee involvement thereby avoiding coordination between the different forms of participation. There is thus the need to innovate the traditional system of interest representation by developing new hypotheses capable of clarifying the relationship between direct involvement and representative participation. If there is a lack of clarity as regards the respective competencies and the interconnections between the different levels, the experiences of participation risk failure.  

Finally, it will also be shown that a potential obstacle is linked to the cultural differences. In fact, the Charter on Labour Relations envisaging an exchange between co-determination rights and shared responsibility initially entailed mistrust among Italian employee representatives and trade unions. A specific relationship between social partnership and conflict had to be developed guaranteeing in this way the compatibility with national industrial relations practices.

It can be argued that TCAs can represent an added value in specific fields of industrial relations. The significant impact of the Labor Relations Charter is not a surprising result as Italian industrial relations have always been characterised by the absence of institutionalised participation rights. Thus, it is comprehensible that the participation rights go beyond the national standards in the field of information and consultation. All in all, the Labor Relations Charter as well as other TCAs contributed to strengthening the position of company-level bodies of interest representation and trade union organisations as the latter are entitled through the signature of central management to negotiate and deal with an enlarged range of topics at local level.

The implementation of the TCAs is also an important example of a multilevel approach of interest representation characterised by a close coordination of various actors including World Works Council, European Works Council, the Italian company-level bodies of interest representation (RSU), territorial trade union organisations and even  the RSUs of supply companies.

It can be concluded that the introduction of co-determination rights was not the result of the export of the German model, but rather the outcome of a sustainable strategy of disseminating and integrating basic principles of co-determination in the context of Italian industrial relations.

A meta-organisational perspective on global framework agreements strategies of global union federations

Rémi Bourguignon, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Pierre Garaudel, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

This article analyses the practice of Global Framework Agreement (GFA) in transnational companies (TNCs) through the perspective of the «GFA strategies» carried out by Global Union Federation (GUFs). Using the meta-organization theoretical framework we conceptualize GUFs as Meta-Organizations (MO) and develop the notions of meta-organizational landscape and meta-organizational activities of GUFs in order to give a new theoretical account of the specific position of GUFs in the international industrial relations arena. The theory of MO has been developed following the seminal contributions of Ahrne and Brunsson (2005, 2008) who proposed the concept of MO to designate organizations that have other organizations as members. Researchers have shown that MOs present specific characteristics compared to individual-based organizations : for example, MOs tend to be much more dependent to their singular members and their decision-making process is based more on consensus than hierarchy. Moreover, meta-organization and its members organizations typically compete for identity, autonomy, and authority. This analytical framework has been applied to different kinds of MOs such as trade associations and a great variety of international organizations (Kerwer, 2013; Malcourant, Vas and Zintz, 2015, Ahrne, Brunsson, and Kerwer, 2016; Brankovic, 2018). However, to our knowledge, no MOs related to the industrial relation field has yet been studied with MO theoretical lenses. In this paper we focus on GUFs because they present specific features typical of MOs. At the macro-level, we show how GUFS are engaged in many types of interactions (membership, cooperation, negotiation) with other MOs (the Federation of International Employers -FedEE-, the International Trade Union Confederation -ITUC-, the International Labor Organizations -ILO-, the European Trade Union Confederation -ETUC-, etc.) that often have other MOs as members (for example, 10 European Trade Unions federations are members of the ETUC). More specifically, we interpret in terms of meta-organizational functions the emergent division of labour between the ICFTU, on the one hand, and the GUFs, on the other (Fairbrother and Hammer, 2005). While strengthening cooperation and coordination among members and acting as a collective representative of its members in relation with external stakeholders (policy-makers, media, Non Profit Organizations, etc.) have been identified as two main functions of MOs, these two MO functions tend to be dissociated in the new international industrial relation landscape: ICFTU is more focused on traditional lobbying at international institutions when GUFs are giving more attention to union organizing and labour-management relations. In referencing TNCs and their global production networks, the IFA strategy has thus defined a new focus of activity for the GUFs and their affiliates (Helfen and Fichter, 2011). At the micro level, this leads us to highlight the specific mode of action of GUFs whithin TNCs as meta-organizational external interlocutors acting in support of TNCs internal actors. This view is in line with the argument of Ford and McGillan (2015) according to which GUFs are distinct from national and local unions in that they have an identifiable mandate to think, act and represent workers on a transnational basis but at the same time, however – since the locus of union resources, authority structures and mobilization remains local and national – their capacity to effect change and implement their strategic goals is still largely dependent on their ability to identify effective union partners at local and national scales and to play a facilitation and coordination role rather than dictating or directing the implementation of strategy from ‘above’. While they aim to support the cooperation between TNCs internal actors across different countries they may also be perceived as « competitors » or at least as less legitimate actors than internal actors when it comes to negotiate with the management’s side. This may lead to various institutional arrangements within TNCs, especially as industrial relations are much less embedded in an institutional and legal framework at the international level than they are at the national level and even at the European level. This diversity of situations may result from the different GFA strategies of GUFs but also from firm-specific factors related to the history of unions-management relationships and from home-country institutional effects. Our empirical investigation, based on the qualitative analysis of 10 French multinational companies, allows us to identify tree ideal-typical situations: 1) GFAs with a predominant role of an internal union network, known as “Alliance”, promoted and coordinated by one singular GUF acting in the skills and services sector, the UNI Global Union; 2) GFAs with a predominant role of the European or group work council in interaction with TNCs national trade unions, especially the TNCs home-country ones; 3) GFAs negotiated and implemented mainly within the framework of a bilateral relation between the signatory GUF and the management side. Following our analysis of the case-studies corresponding to these three ideal-types, we suggest that the “UNI Alliance” configuration offers the advantage of balancing different constraints GUFs have to overcome in order to successfully promote and develop a GFA policy within TNCs. First, the Alliance framework allows to uphold the status of GUFs as the leading interlocutor of the employees’ side at the global level while also explicitly acknowledge an active and important role to national unions, therefore mitigating the risk of some competitive tensions between the GUFs and the TNCs internal organizations. At the same time, by facilitating the involvement and coordination of national unions throughout the TNCs’ global network, the Alliance framework helps to ensure a better effectivity of the GFA. This contrasts with the situation generally observed in the “GUF-management head-to-head” configuration where the GUF is in a lesser position to ensure the effective implementation of the agreement, especially because of the lower involvement of national unions and the lack of human and financial resources at the GUF’s disposal


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Measuring varieties of industrial democracy in Europe

A quantitative analysis

Pablo Sanz, notus-asr
Maria Caprile, notus-asr
Christian Welz, Eurofound
Ricardo Rodriguez, Eurofound

The term industrial democracy can be traced back to the late 19th century. At that time, the term was used in influential publications such as the ‘history of trade unionism’ or ‘industrial democracy’ (Webb and Webb, 1897, 1898) to explain and justify trade unions’ missions and activities in search of social justice within a free market capitalism characterized by harsh working conditions (Kauffman, 2014). Contemporary definitions of industrial democracy have moved away from the industrial democracy approach developed by the Webbs in 1898, which was mainly focused on trade unions and collective bargaining, and tend to use alternative terms, such as voice. While central to most of current approaches to industrial democracy is that employees have the opportunities and the means to have a say in an employer’s decision-making process at different levels, there is a not a consensual definition. Diverse definitions of industrial democracy and related terms such as employee involvement, participation and voice reflect competing theoretical and methodological foundations or ‘frames or references’ (Heery, 2015). This makes complex to delimitate the boundaries of the industrial democracy concept and carry out international comparison of the different forms and outcomes of industrial democracy. Overall, comparative research on industrial democracy is fragmented (González and Martínez Lucio (2016). On the one hand, some approaches have focused on the micro or company level, analysing the characteristics and outcomes of different forms of employee participation at company level (Townsend et al, 2012; Van Gyes 2016; Eurofound, 2015). On the other hand, common industrial relations comparative approaches have focused on the macro level, researching topics such as corporatism, social dialogue and multi-employer collective bargaining (Meardi, 2018; Marginson, 2017; Baccaro and Howell, 2017).

The current paper, which is based on two research projects commissioned by Eurofound, develops a comprehensive definition of industrial democracy which covers both the macro or institutional level and the micro or company level. Industrial democracy is understood as a model of employment relationship governance which rests on shared decision making between management and independent employee representation (Budd, 2004). It encompasses all participation rights of employers and employees. Industrial democracy covers four dimensions: autonomy of social partners in collective bargaining; representation rights at both macro (collective bargaining, social dialogue) and company level (work councils, etc.); participation, understood as mechanisms for involving employees in management decision making at company level; and influence, linked to bargaining power and the relative ability of the two sides of industry to exert influence over the other side in the context of collective bargaining or management decision making. Following this definition, the paper builds, firstly, a composite indicator aiming to map, measure and summarise the most important features of industrial democracy in the 28 EU countries from a static and a dynamic perspective. The computation of the composite indicator is based on the internationally accepted methodology on building composite indicators developed by JRC and the OECD (Nardo et al., 2005). The composite indicator includes annual data for the period 2008-2017 from different European data sources. The selected indicators meet strict conceptual and statistical criteria, in line both with the quality assessment and assurance framework of the European Statistical System, and other quality criteria commonly used in the literature.  In addition, only intelligible indicators which can be interpreted unambiguously, either "positive" or "negative", are included. Secondly, a cluster analysis is conducted in order to map varieties on industrial relations systems in relation to industrial democracy.  In order to cluster countries, additional relevant indicators which cannot be interpreted in terms of either positive or negative, but are relevant for mapping variety, are added. The typology of industrial relation systems is therefore based on industrial democracy performance and relevant characteristics of industrial democracy.

The outcomes of the composite index enable to measure, from a static point of view, country performance in industrial democracy. Dynamic analysis which result from comparing two time periods (2008-2012; 2013-2017), shows a downward divergence trend, illustrating that cross-national differences have been accentuated, deepening previous inequalities concerning the role played by industrial democracy in the governance of employment relationships.

The outcomes of the typology prove to be useful for better understanding diversity in terms of industrial democracy characteristics. Typology outcomes are relevant also because they challenge previous industrial relations’ typologies, providing a more nuanced description of industrial democracy characteristics of countries usually included within the broad category of ‘mixed’ or ‘transitional’ industrial relations models (Viseer, 2009).

Differences in trade union membership and influence across Europe

The importance of comparative electoral systems

John Budd, University of Minnesota
J. Ryan Lamare, School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign

From an employment relations perspective, the ideal situation for industrial relations would likely be one where trade union membership and workplace influence are high, stable (if not increasing), and uniform across countries. However, industrial relations faces significant challenges because none of these are true. Researchers have therefore explored various explanations for declining union density as well as for persistent differences in cross-national union membership levels across countries. While research has analyzed individual attitudes and demographic characteristics, job and organizational characteristics, globalization and other economic trends, trade union activities, and differences in varieties of capitalism and industrial relations systems, it appears that the importance of a country’s political system for influencing trade union membership and workplace influence has been overlooked.

There are multiple ways in which a country’s political system might shape  union membership and influence, including enacting public policies, involving unions in peak-level corporatist initiatives, enabling direct relationships between trade unions and legislators, appointing labor-friendly ministers and other officials, establishing the employment relations parameters for public sector employees, shaping attitudes around political inclusion that affect workplace agency, and giving social legitimacy to collective voice. Empirically, we draw on the political science literature on comparative electoral systems and use a country’s level of disproportionality and its number of political parties to measure electoral system differences. Disproportionality measures deviations from the baseline of perfect proportionality in which each party’s vote share equals its share of legislative seats.

We use the 2009 and 2013 waves of the European Company Survey to conduct multivariate analyses of the relationship between trade unions and other representative bodies in the workplace and national-level electoral systems by adding these measures of comparative electoral systems to workplace-level data from 29 European countries. We also  use Round 5 of the European Social Survey (ESS) by adding these measures of comparative electoral systems to individual-level data from 26 European countries. We find consistent results that a lower level of disproportionality (that is, a greater level of legislative representativeness) is a statistically significant predictor of a greater likelihood of unions and other representative bodies being present and having influence in the workplace. Furthermore, we are able to pool all 8 rounds of the ESS and analyze individual union membership across more than 30 European countries, and we find that a lower level of disproportionality is a statistically significant predictor of a higher probability of individual union membership. All of these analyses control for organizational, demographic, and job characteristics to the extent allowed based on the information collected in each survey.

We believe that this significantly adds to the literature on union membership and employee representation, and has important implications for industrial relations not only in Europe but in other regions as well.

Corporate identity discourse in the post-merger TNC and the consequences for employee voice

Mona Aranea, Cardiff University
Sergio González Begega, University of Oviedo
Holm-Detlev Köhler, University of Oviedo

Corporate mergers or acquisition force companies to re-establish or even re-invent the corporate identity that shall give sense and direction to management (Vaara and Tienari, 2011). Despite the widely acknowledged importance of employee co-operation for successful post-merger integration (Edwards and Edwards, 2015), studies on changing employee voice in the post-merger TNC remain limited in number (Edwards et al., 2017).

Our longitudinal case study examines how managerial identity talk (Koveshnikov et al., 2016) affects transnational employee voice during the post-merger integration process. We present empirical evidence from the case of ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steel producer, created in 2006 through the merger of the European company Arcelor and the Anglo-Indian corporation Mittal Steel. We explore how ArcelorMittal’s current set of corporate values has come about through a struggle over meaning in the contested social terrain of the global firm.

Our qualitative dates comprises two sets of qualitative interviews with managers and employees of the company, the first carried out between 2002 and 2006, the second conducted between 2014 and 2016. We trace the deconstruction of transnational employee voice institutions in the company back to cultural identity talk and an executive exodus among managers. Our in-depth case study of ArcelorMittal gives insights into the changing nature of managerial identity discourse during and after major corporate mergers and the impact of corporate culture on the quality of employee voice in the global firm.

Key words

Transnational corporations; mergers and acquisitions; cultural distinction drawing; identity talk; ArcelorMittal; employee voice


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Transnational protest actions and the interplay of the different levels of employee representation in multinational companies

Christine Üyük, Institute for Work, Skills and Training, University of Duisburg-Essen

The paper focuses on transnational protest actions in multinational companies (MNC), because of the globalization and the orientation of modern corporate governance on financial ratios, the com-petition between locations within companies and the occurrence of transnational conflicts (cross-border restructuring, mergers, etc.) is increasing. However, for local and national interest representation there is hardly any point of intervening in transnational restructuring plans. Mostly, they have little influence on the decisions for a pan-European or worldwide restructuring taken at central level. Often, at these levels of action, they can only mitigate the effects of restructuring in form of social plans. This creates a need for collective action on transnational interest representa-tion level. One form of such a cooperation are transnational protest actions in MNC.

The focus of industrial relation research so far has mostly been on single actors, especially European Works Councils. In the last 25 years the formation of EWCs, their structures and practices as well as their impact have been examined extensive. Only in a few studies, have examined the multi-level interest representation system in its entirety. But to focus only on the European Works Council or World Works Council would be in this case not sufficient because the planning, organization and implementation of a transnational protest action requires the cooperation of the whole multi-level system of interest representation with its actors at the local, national and European level. This means in detail that European Works Councils, local works councils (or délégués du personnel or shop stewards), central works councils (or comité d'entreprise or comité de groupe), board-level employee representation, World Works Councils, union coordination groups, national trade unions, European Union Federations and Global Union Federations have to discuss their interests, to agree on a common target and to cooperate with each other. However, numerous obstacles like different languages, different interest representation cultures, different unions, missing interest representation structure in some countries and diverging interests between the countries hinder the cooperation. But despite the complexity of the interest representation system und his numerous obstacles it was possible to organize a transnational protest action in some MNC.

Against this backdrop, the aim of the paper is to focus on the interplay and the interest articulation between the different levels of interest representation in MNC which made a transnational protest action possible. Hereby the interaction, the exchange of interests and cooperation are examined on a horizontal level as well as on a vertical level. Three main questions will be examined: What have been the reasons for carrying out a transnational collective action and what have been the motives to choose transnational protest as a collective form of interest representation? Which factors have been conducive or obstructive in the organization and planning process? Which significance had the protest action in the transnational interest representation work and what effects have been achieved?

Therefore, the paper is based on Giddens’ theory of structuration with which the different levels of interest representation can be seen as “action fields”. In the action fields the actors are subject to different rules, different resources and different interpretation frames which they can use to assert their interests. The results are based on six company case studies from different sectors (food industry, mechanical engineering industry, construction materials industry, the airline industry and on one multi industry group as well as one additional case from the white goods industry). Each case is based on five to seven qualitative interviews with Works Councils, Group Works Councils, European Works Councils and Union Representatives from different representation levels and countries.


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