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.

Trade union attitudes towards climate change

Developing a conceptual framework

Adrien Thomas, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research
Nadja Doerflinger, KU Leuven

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change commits the world to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. As the latest special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates, keeping this objective requires a rapid and far-reaching transition to a low-carbon economy (IPCC 2018). Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This large-scale transition will inevitably reshape the economy, create and destroy numerous jobs, and affect working conditions and skills.

This contribution discusses how European trade unions address the challenge of climate change mitigation through emissions reductions in the manufacturing and power generation sectors. Climate change mitigation in these sectors often represents a tremendous challenge for trade unions, confronting them with the jobs versus environment dilemma. The attitudes of trade unions toward the ecological transition are characterized by tensions between a principled adherence to the need to mitigate climate change and a concern for job losses in the traditionally unionized manufacturing industry.

To build up a typology of attitudes, we integrate two different kinds of literatures. Specifically, the literature on trade unions’ collective bargaining strategies, in particular on concession bargaining, is combined with the one on interest representation by trade unions. This is important, as the effects of possible jobs-environment concessions are not limited to the relations between management and labour in a workplace as in the traditional literature on concession bargaining (e.g. McKersie and Capelli 1982), but affect society as a whole. This is because of the much-discussed tendency of organized groups to pursue private gains at the expense of common goods (e.g. Baccaro 2001). Therefore, it is essential to explore the conditions for internalizing third-party interests in trade union decision-making processes on climate change mitigation policies.

As a result, the contribution establishes a typology of the ideal-typical attitudes of trade unions in the manufacturing and power generation sector towards emission reduction policies: opposition, hedging and support. Attitudes of opposition to climate change mitigation see trade unions outrightly refuse the adoption of emissions reduction policies in the industries they represent. Hedging strategies are adopted by trade unions who do not deny the need to mitigate climate change but seek to minimize compliance costs, advocate incremental approaches and construct a dichotomy between the competing priorities of employment and environmental protection. Attitudes of support for emissions reduction policies are adopted by trade unions who outrightly support climate change mitigation policies and adopt a proactive approach to the ecological transition.

We provide empirical evidence to illustrate such attitudes. The respective data stems from (1) in-depth interviews with trade union representatives at different levels (i.e. European, national/sectoral) focusing on the jobs versus environment dilemma carried out in 2017 and 2018; (2) various secondary data sources, particularly newspaper articles and trade union reports.

Keywords: trade union attitudes, collective bargaining, pollution control industry, environmental policy, greenhouse gases, Europe

What drives sustainability in companies?

Examining the influence of board level employee representation on responsible practices in large European companies

Sigurt Vitols, Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) and European Trade Union Institute (ETUI)

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-288-Vitols.pdf

Although the literature on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability practices has become very large, almost no studies have looked at the influence of worker representation on these kinds of practices. This is surprising given that workers are universally seen as one of the central stakeholders in companies. Using data gathered by a sustainability ratings firm Vigeo Eiris on sustainability practices at large European companies (STOXX 600), this paper shows that having employee representatives on company boards has a positive and significant association with better sustainability practices across the board, including not only human resources practices, but also human rights, environmental, community involvement and other business practice policy domains.

Workshop: Workers‘ participation at plant level – a European and global perspective

Organiser: Ludger Pries, Ruhr University Bochum

General theme

Most people in the world spend the greater part of their life at their workplace. Globalization brings employees and workers from all over the world closer together—through direct value chains or indirect competition. Considering the very different regions of the world of labor, there are great varieties of labor regulation and labor conditions. Therefore, it becomes increas-ingly important to develop an overview of the extent and mechanisms of workers’ participation at plant level. It is crucial to understand and analyze the conditions under which people around the world are able to participate in the day-to-day working process and strategic decision mak-ing of the companies that employ them. This is still a neglected topic in the area of industrial and labor relations that requires further research, especially from a global perspective. The ses-sion will be based on a comprehensive recent publication on the topic.

The session will focus on the analysis of the mechanisms and practice of workers’ participation in the definition, control and enforcement of their working and employment conditions as well as their participation in work-related and company-strategic decisions. It aims at comparing different formal regulations and practices of workers’ participation at the workplace level in a carefully chosen selection of country case studies, first at the European level and second at the international level. Some guiding questions are: Does workers’ participation hinder manage-ment flexibility and introduce rigidity in times of increasing needs of companies to cope with more volatile and changing economic environments? Or is workers’ participation not only an indispensable precondition for democracy in society but also a way of facilitating workers’ inte-gration, motivation and participation in production? Is legally regulated workers’ participation as standing in stark opposition to any direct, individual and practical participation in work pro-cesses? Or should strategies and mechanisms like ‘Innovative Human Resource Management Strategies’ not be seen as contradictory to formal ways of workers’ participation and collective representation at plant level? Is workers’ participation and collective representation by unions a contradiction to direct democracy and participation of individuals at the workplace? Or are mechanisms of collective representation by unions and by alternative mechanisms of direct and indirect participation at the workplace, plant and company levels not mutually exclusive but reinforcing? Are the specific cultural contexts and institutional traditions of workers’ participa-tion in the EU converging or diverging? What are the main functions of workers’ participation at plant level (e.g. channelling inter- and intra-group conflicts in the working area; giving workers a voice and especially protect weaker groups in a given plant; stabilizing the development of es-tablishments and companies, triggering long-term perspectives; increasing motivation and commitment of workers at the workplace level; harmonizing the conditions of competition by controlling the compliance of legal, legitimate, collective bargaining and tacit norms; controlling and delimiting economic power; combining economic efficiency with democracy in economic life).

Papers to be presented

Workers’ participation: Concepts and evidence for Europe

Thomas Haipeter, Institute for Work, Skills and Training, University of Duisburg-Essen

Mondragon: Cooperatives in global capitalism

Joseba Azkarraga, University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU)
George Cheney, University of Colorado

Workers’ participation in Czechia and Slovakia

Jan Drahokoupil, European Trade Union Institute (ETUI)
Marta Kahancová, Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI)

Workers‘ participation at plant level: France

Udo Rehfeldt, IRES

Workers’ participation at plant level: The case of Italy

Volker Telljohann, IRES Emilia-Romagna

Workers’ participation in Spain

Holm-Detlev Köhler, University of Oviedo

Workers’ participation at plant level in a global comparative perspective

Ludger Pries, Ruhr University Bochum

Digitalisation as contested terrain

Digital Taylorism and labour politics in Amazon‘s logistics centres

Georg Barthel, Institute for Work, Skills and Training, University of Duisburg-Essen

The public debate about the digitialisation of labour is dominated by a technical determinist perspective trying to extrapolate its consequences from technical developments and potentials. Thus, the influence of actors, their interests and institutions on the implementation of digital technology is often ignored (Pfeiffer 2016: 6). If we do ask for the consequences of digitalization for industrial democracy, we have to keep in mind, that Technology is not only influencing social relations, but “is produced by the social relation represented by capital” (Braverman 1973: 14). Since employers and employees do have potential antagonistic interests, the introduction of new technologies is “a site of potential conflict” (Briken et al. 2017: 4) and the shaping of digitalization depends on power relations and resources (Dörre 2018: 366). It is therefore appropriate to analyze in concrete terms how digitalisation changes industrial relations as well as how they are shaped by them.

Amazon has been called “an avantgarde of digital capitalism” (Nachtwey/Staab 2015) and has been creating many simple jobs in its more than 40 logistic centers all over Europe. It is known for its harsh anti-union stance. Nonetheless, it has been the scene of ongoing workers struggles and strikes in Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Italy and France for several years. While the developments at Amazon might not be representative for all regimes of productions in every industry, it shows nonetheless one important possible challenge to decent work and industrial democracy posed by digitalization.

In my paper I want to discuss how Amazon is using digital technology to control the market as well as the workforce. Furthermore, I want to show how digital devices are influencing the working conditions and relations in production, what is also provoking resistance and conflict in its logistics centers. I want to present preliminary findings of an ongoing observing participation as a supporter and researcher in the struggle of warehouse workers at Amazon since 2015. I have participated in numerous of meetings of shop stewards and strike assemblies and I have conducted qualitative Interviews with workers and trade unionists, too.

The creation of massive simple jobs in its network of warehouses and logistics centers form the basis  of the rapid expansion of Amazon to grasp the monopoly in e-commerce (cf. Staab/Nachtwey 2016). Following tLabour Process Theory and the power resource approach I will analyze selected strategies of management to maximize the control and exploitation of labour, among them first of all a digital Taylorism. I will discuss their shortcomings and problems and how they are influencing the workers’ power resources. Amazon is constantly deskilling the labour in its so-called fulfillment centers (FCs) to create a contingent work force and to undermine the workers’ power.

Nonetheless, workers are resisting to the regime of production, resorting to different levels of activities: Everyday resistance up to sabotage, works councils, strikes as well as other trade union actions. Meanwhile, Amazon is not only attempting to control the labour process but is also aiming to hollow or to refuse the two elements of the dual system of representation, which is characteristic for German industrial relations: works council and trade unions/collective agreements. Therefore, Amazon can be seen as a site of class struggle, in which digital technology is used to challenge industrial democracy, while workers and trade unions are struggling to defend it.


  • Bonacich, Edna/Wilson, Jake B. (2008): Getting the goods: ports, labor, and the logistics revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.
  • Braverman, Harry (1973): Labor and monopoly capital: the degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York.
  • Briken, Kendra/Chillas, Shiona/Krzywdzinski, Martin/Marks, Abigail (2017): Labor Process Theory and the new digital workplace. In: dies. (Hg.): The new digital workplace: how new technologies revolutionise work. London: 1-17.
  • Dörre, Klaus (2018): Digitalisierung - neue Prosperität oder neue Spaltung? In: Hartmut Hirsch-Kreinsen/Ittermann, Peter/Niehaus, Jonathan (Hg.): Digitalisierung industrieller Arbeit: die Vision Industrie 4.0 und ihre sozialen Herausforderungen. 2., aktualisierte und erweiterte Auflage. Baden-Baden: 365-381.
  • Nachtwey, Oliver/Staab, Philipp (2015): Die Avantgarde des digitalen Kapitalismus. In: Eurozine. URL:, (21.12.2017).
  • Pfeiffer, Sabine (2016): Industrie 4.0 – Phänomen eines digitalen Despotismus? Ursprung, Akteure und Intentionen eines vermeintlich deutschen Technikdiskurses. URL:, (15.10.2018).
  • Staab, Philipp, und Oliver Nachtwey. 2016. Market and Labour Control in Digital Capitalism. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 14: 457–474.


See no evil, hear no evil?

Workers voice in the gig economy

Giuseppe Antonio Recchia, University of Bari

The “identity crisis” of the gig economy worker - employee, worker, self-employed, micro-entrepreneur, according to the different platform schemes and the applicable legal framework – jeopardises, at least at first glance, another symbol of the traditional employment relationship, i.e. the collective interest, its becoming subject, through precise forms of representation, and object of collective action; as it has been rightly pointed out, in the sharing economy, workers do not require the trade union mediation, nor the employers need their associations, because everything, apparently, is entrusted to a direct encounter between customers/consumers and workers, linked or mediated by a platform that generates algorithms. Nonetheless, workers’ vulnerability and the economical (and even hierarchical) dominant position of digital intermediaries brings to inevitable protests, mobilization and early forms of organisation. The protests of food delivery gig workers across Europe or the use of judicial actions as a way of setting up an agenda for claiming right represent the tip of an iceberg which affects the traditional industrial relations system and which demands to be analysed in the paper according these lines:

  1. the way in which gig economy workers’ interests find even basic forms of organization and representation and in which these forms of representation, voluntarily settled on “precarious” representation, develop collective action, adopting a grassroots approach which marries militant campaigns to legal battles;
  2. the way in which gig workers seem to move without and beyond traditional trade unions, which in turn are forced to rethink their strategies, accepting the challenge of representing the precarious and informal work, finding successful solutions, for example, in the German approach of IG Metall and the Swedish model of Unionen.

The study of representation and collective action in the platform economy scope – based on case studies and the theoretical literature - will also focus on the internal and external obstacles – including the EU framework on freedom of association and collective bargaining - to its strengthening.

Solidarity and collective voice in the platform economy

Philipp Lorig, Chemnitz University of Technology
Markus Hertwig, Chemnitz University of Technology
Manuel Holz, Chemnitz University of Technology

The paper proposed here addresses new forms of interest representation of online labour-crowdworkers, facilitated by specialized internet platforms. Specifically, our research focuses on communication processes between crowdworkers and their practices of “voice”.

Some of those platforms have gained much attention recently, e.g. turkopticon, which is a platform designed to enable communication between independent crowdworkers working for amazon mechanical turk, one of the biggest platforms for crowdsourcing and online labour. Other platforms also provide information and communication channels, but generally, online discussion-forums are built by crowdworkers themselves and rarely, the crowdsourcing platforms offer blogs or discussion spaces.

Such platforms, online discussion forums and the exchange between crowdworkers can be understood as a response to the various issues facing workers in specific segments of the digital economy. These include a broad spectrum: one may differentiate between performance-related issues (when dealing with certain tasks, e.g. with regard to the correct handling of certain tasks) and conflict related issues such as discrimination on the part of the contractors (e.g. “wage theft”, when retaining remuneration for services rendered, which is possible in case a provider classifies a service as "unsatisfactory" and an arbitration instance is missing).

The paper pursues the following questions:

  1. Which forms of exchange between crowdworkers can be identified on online labour-internet platforms? To what extent do the practices oscillate between “assistance in performance related issues” and “collective voice” or “conflict”?
  2. Under what conditions are the different practices developing? Which factors promote or aggravate the development of shared definitions of probabilities, interests and ultimately common forms of action?
  3. To what extent are platform-mediated patterns expressions of solidarity between crowdworkers?

By making use of webscraping techniques we extracted unstructured data of platform users in form of discussion posts on eight selected forums connected to amazon mechanical turk. To identify relevant forum entries for the analysis we apply a filtering-based approach via multiple search word lists.

Preliminary findings and interpretations of our merged empirical data which show the possibilities and limits of “voice” and collective interest-representation on individualized online-labour- platforms will conclude our proposed paper.

From the periphery to the core

Collective bargaining in Chile as a journey to the potential future of European systems

Gonzalo Duran, Institute for Work, Skills and Training, University of Duisburg-Essen

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-179-DURAN.pdf

Umberto Romagnoli, an Italian labour lawyer in industrial relations, once pointed out that European countries are taking now, the early and nowadays consolidated Latin-American neoliberal experiences, as an inspiration for their labour reforms and their conceptions of labour rights. To him, travelling to Latin America is, to some extent, a journey to the future.

The Chilean system of industrial relations could be portrayed as a showcase of radical neoliberalism policies. In 1979, under the rule of the civic and military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, sectoral collective bargaining was dismantled and even banned. Along with that, strike action was severely restricted. Following the power resources approach, those transformations sought to reduce the organisational power of unions.

A few decades later, in 2012, the Spanish government implemented a labour reform aimed at decentralising its collective bargaining system. The Chilean model was carefully analysed before.

Between 2014 and 2016, the Chilean government conducted a labour reform to give back some minimal labour rights taken away in 1979. In such a discussion, the IMF pointed out that the Chilean system of collective bargaining works fine and they thus recommended keeping the structure or level without changes. In late 2015, IMF organised an international workshop of collective bargaining structure and fostered an industrial relations agenda expressing its inclination towards a more decentralised collective bargaining, with a clear preference at the firm-level. The key point defended by IMF was that this type of configuration (with the firm-level as predominant or exclusive) is not necessarily related to low coverage. However, it would seem this assessment has not had empirical support.

David Harvey, for example, has sustained that the liberal transformations which occurred in Chile during the dictatorship in the mid-70s were used as an experiment for the implementation of a new model for the core capitalist countries: “...thus, and not for the first time, a brutal experiment carried out at the outskirts would become a model to formulate policies in the core capitalist countries”. Taking into account this move as a possible future of European industrial relations, it seems meaningful to study the Chilean model of fragmented collective bargaining.

This paper examines the introduction and consolidation of what I shall call “abolitionist decentralisation” in collective bargaining. In this model, unionism and the negotiating of collective agreements are confined to the plant-level (the most decentralised one), and legal possibilities of articulated sectorial action are interdicted. The new scheme was released during Pinochet’s regime (1973-1990), and it was only minimally challenged or changed by the subsequent governments between 1990 and 2017. This paper suggests that unions’ reduction in organisational power opened up room for the shaping of a specific socio-technical configuration for the capital accumulation dynamic based in the super-exploitation of labour (using the formulation by Ruy Mauro Marini) intertwined with a fierce control of the labour process.

This institutional setting represents the first piece in a triangular circuit - which I have called “Penrose's triangle of working control” - that undermines the collective action at the workplace, reinforcing control over the workers. The second piece, right next to the institutional base, is the high fragmentation driven mainly by large companies. Particularly relevant here is the on-site subcontracting, the external subcontracting, the upsurge of temporary work agencies, and the pervasive use of the split-up method (where one company divides itself into several new companies, all of which belong to a single owner), among other variants. The triangle closes with a high-level of labour instability, which is characterised by temporary contracts, easy dismissal policies and discontinuous and flexible wages. Although this type of interactions has re-configured work all around the world, there are some specific traits in the Chilean case that merit a focused analysis. Throughout almost 40 years of neoliberal policies, it is possible to identify an effect, which one could label as turbo-stimulation, on this process of fragmentation. This, in turn, reinforces the organisational atomisation of workers.

In the present article, the following questions are addressed: What role does the Chilean system of collective bargaining play in the dynamics of capital accumulation? How does the “abolitionist decentralisation of collective bargaining” work? How does this Penrose's triangle model of analysis may be useful in illuminating these matters? What have its development in recent years been? What are the implications of this type of restructuration? What insights can be posited to building and renewing institutions?

To answer these questions, the empirical analysis uses a combination of methodological approaches. Firstly, with the aim of organising pieces of information into larger categories, Thematic Analysis (TA) will be used. Collected through direct field research, the dataset is grounded in my own involvement as a part of the economic advisory board in different trade unions (as a member of Fundación SOL). The dataset was built between 2007 and 2016 and includes informal conversations with union officials, the rank and file and managers, extensive field notes, and organisational documents including technical reports written by the crew of Fundación SOL ( By using TA, this work aims to show the severity of fragmentation, especially its disarticulating effect on unionism. Secondly, based on data analysis and micro-simulation techniques (MSM), the paper shows an increasing decoupling between real wages and labour productivity between 1992 and 2008 immediately prior to the international economic turmoil of this period. Additionally, it shows that afterwards, despite a small narrowing in the gap, income inequality is still very high when the market-income ratio of top and bottom ventiles (or vigintiles) is performed using MSM.

All in all, the Chilean experience provides an empirical base to understand the challenges of a case of extreme fragmentation and decentralisation in the collective bargaining system. Specifically, this study foregrounds the claim that collective labour institutions in Chile have not made a substantial contribution to promoting an equitable society, and as the trade unions have repeatedly called for, it is necessary to move towards a more appropriate institutional framework.

The impacts of private equity investments on employment relations in Ireland

Dhuha Mujadedi, Michael Smurt Graduate Business School, University College Dublin
Colm McLaughlin, University College Dublin

This paper reports on the findings of PhD research into the impacts of private equity (PE) funds on employment relations (ER) in Ireland. The spread of PE investments is part of the financialization culture that puts greater emphasis on shareholder value, debt financing, short-termism, liquidity and flexibility. PE funds target large mature businesses: they take them private with a typical financial structure of 70% debt to 30% equity, manage them with a focus on increasing efficiency and reducing costs, and sell the companies within a 10-year period. The existing financial literature on PE investments highlights a financial model that provides investors with high and relatively fast return of investment (Kaplan, 1989; Marais et al., 1989; Smith, 1990). The nascent literature on the impacts of PE funds on ER outcomes, however, is somewhat divided.  In a more pessimistic stream of literature, Batt and Appelbaum (2013, 2014), Clarke (2009, 2013), Gospel and Pendleton (2014) and Georgen et al. (2012), find that PE investments shifts risk from investors to employees, through redundancies, outsourcing, the creation of precarious employment, work intensification, and liquidation of assets. In contrast, Hoque et al. (2018), Wilson et al. (2012), Davis et al. (2014) and Wright et al. (2009), find that cost cutting strategies by PE houses result in improved financial results in the targeted companies with concomitant job growth in the longer term.

This paper contributes to this debate and suggests that the strategies of PE equity towards ER are less homogenous than has often been portrayed in the literature. It draws on interviews with management, unions and employees in four large companies in Ireland that were bought by PE funds. The companies are in TMT, pharmaceuticals, services and retail. In addition, interviews were conducted with investment houses, financial advisors, and investment associations. Over 50 interviews have been conducted. The analysis of the interviews is in its early stages, but initial results suggest that although the mainstream focus in PE buyouts is primarily on the bottom line and on using cost cutting strategies, the impacts of PE buyouts on ER varies across different types of PE houses. Irish-based PE funds, or funds invested in by the government, tend to be more concerned with the targeted company's longer term performance and tend to have closer ties with the management than international PE funds. The geographic convergence between the PE investment company and the targeted company allows for greater communication and understanding of the local context. National PE houses are cognizant of reputational issues, and focus on expanding the targeted business, which leads to job growth and maintaining and improving employment terms and conditions in order to attract skilled employees. Additionally, some international PE houses have moved from an aggressive short-term focus, to a more ‘impact-oriented’ focus, including social and environmental outcomes. The findings also show that unions can play a major role in maintaining employment standards in the face of proposed redundancies and cuts to terms and conditions.


  • Appelbaum, E., Batt, R., & Clark, I. (2013). Implications of financial capitalism for employment relations research: evidence from breach of trust and implicit contracts in private equity buyouts. British journal of industrial relations, 51(3), 498-518.
  • Appelbaum, E., & Batt, R. (2014). Private equity at work: When wall street manages main street. Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Clark, I. (2009). Owners and managers disconnecting managerial capitalism? understanding the private-equity business model. Work, Employment & Society, 23(4), 775-786.
  • Clark, I. (2013). Templates for financial control? Management and employees under the private equity business model. Human Resource Management Journal, 23(2), 144-159.
  • Cumming, D., Siegel, D. S., & Wright, M. (2007). Private equity, leveraged buyouts and governance. Journal of Corporate Finance, 13(4), 439-460.
  • Davis, S. J., Haltiwanger, J., Handley, K., Jarmin, R., Lerner, J., & Miranda, J. (2014). Private equity, jobs, and productivity. American Economic Review, 104(12), 3956-90.
  • Goergen, M., Brewster, C., Wood, G., & Wilkinson, A. (2012). Varieties of capitalism and investments in human capital. Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, 51, 501-527.
  • Gospel, H., & Pendleton, A. (2014). Financialization, new investment funds, and labour. Financialization, new investment funds, and labour: An international comparison, 53-85.
  • Kaplan, S. (1989). The effects of management buyouts on operating performance and value. Journal of financial economics, 24(2), 217-254.
  • Kim HOQUE, Nick BACON, and Mike WRIGHT (2018) ‘Labour and finance capital: Job quality in leveraged buyout’s, paper presented at the 18th ILERA World Congress, Seoul, South Korea, July 23-27th.
  • Marais, L., Schipper, K., & Smith, A. (1989). Wealth effects of going private for senior securities. Journal of Financial Economics, 23(1), 155-191.
  • Smith, A. J. (1990). Corporate ownership structure and performance: The case of management buyouts. Journal of financial Economics, 27(1), 143-164.
  • Wilson, N., Wright, M., Siegel, D. S., & Scholes, L. (2012). Private equity portfolio company performance during the global recession. Journal of Corporate Finance, 18(1), 193-205.
  • Wright, M., Gilligan, J., & Amess, K. (2009). The economic impact of private equity: what we know and what we would like to know. Venture Capital, 11(1), 1-21.


Examining the decline of board-level employee representation in Spain

Sara Lafuente Hernandez, European Trade Union Institute (ETUI)

Since the pioneer German Montan-Mitbestimmung Act in 1951, many European countries have adopted mandatory obligations for private and public companies to introduce workers’ voice in their boards, thus granting some influence of labour in corporate strategic decision-making at the highest level. The concept was at some point so extended that it was even considered a feature of the ‘European social model’ (Kluge, 2005). Spain was for a long time considered one of the ‘privileged’ countries for workers’ voice, on the grounds of its specific laws and collective agreements passed between 1985 and 1993 providing a framework for workers’ participation in company boards of saving banks and some privatized companies.

However, a closer look into the formal regulations underpinning board-level employee representation (BLER) in European countries uncovered significant institutional variation in design, practices and implementation (Waddington, 2018; Waddington and Conchon, 2016). Not surprisingly, international comparative research soon proposed to move focus to ‘functional equivalence’ in industrial democracy institutions (Sorge, 1976), to evaluate institutional performance considering contexts and ideologies, rather than building comparisons from the formal description of institutions in isolation. Institutions are dynamic. Accordingly, BLER emerged in specific contexts and evolved over time. In some cases, it was insufficiently implemented in practice, the original purposes were not linearly fulfilled, or its coverage declined. In other cases, existing formal arrangements did not survive hostile economic and political contexts, particularly the financial crisis, industrial restructuring and labour reforms.

The Spanish case illustrates this last category of countries. However, little is known about this form of workers’ representation in Spain. Legal scholars have mostly examined its legal frameworks (Galiana Moreno and García Romero, 2003; Rivero Lamas, 2006), but the political processes, the functioning and social practice of the institution remain largely unexplored. How did this issue reach the political agenda in the 1980s? How was it practiced for three decades while remaining a well-kept secret until its current dilution? Collective labour rights went visibly under attack in the aftermath of the crisis (Baylos, 2013:26-27); in contrast, board-level employee representation seems to have rather “discretely” melted down in such scenario. Trade unions publicly condemned misuses, bad practices and lack of control over the system of union representation in saving banks’ boards; the claim for workers’ participation in company boards was not formally abandoned, but it did also not mobilize to keep the existing representation when it was erased from public regulations. How to explain these ambiguities, and what do they tell us about industrial democracy institutions and discourses, union priorities and understandings in an adversarial industrial relations’ system and unsupportive macroeconomic context as the Spanish one?

This paper examines the Spanish case of rise and fall of BLER as industrial democracy institution. I will expose the foundations underpinning its legal framework(s) and analyse their formal institutional settings. I will then explore the extent of their implementation and characteristics of their social practice, examining the approach of trade union organizations and representatives towards this and other forms of workers’ participation until today. I argue that the fall of BLER in Spain was rather “mild” and gradual due to the weak institutional foundations of the system, its limited scope and indirect effects of structural change. However, the downfall of the model also reactivated internal debates in trade unions to reconstruct a post-crisis ‘more participatory industrial relations’ model’. This framework of discussion involves workers’ voice in company boards as one of the possible (although not primary) paths towards stronger industrial democracy.

Timid novel experiences in European multinationals involving Spanish trade unionists and current political European developments (i.e. European company law package, ETUC claims for minimum standards on workers’ participation in EU-law companies, and ‘democracy at work’ campaign) could also give new impetus to the agenda on workers’ participation in Spain. In order to realistically grasp the potential of a successful (re-)introduction of workers’ voice in company boards, as one possible declination of industrial democracy, the national political and discursive context needs first to be tackled and better acknowledged. This paper is an attempt to contribute to fill a gap in research, while engaging with current debates on the promotion of workers’ participation and industrial democracy institutions in Europe, particularly its ‘peripherical’ countries.

The research is based on literature review, legal text analysis of laws and collective agreements establishing BLER rights in Spain, and qualitative analysis of CCOO and UGT congress documents, press releases, and in-depth interviews to representatives and union officials.


  • Baylos, Antonio (2013) “La desconstitucionalización del trabajo en la Reforma Laboral del 2012 », Revista de Derecho Social (61):19-41.
  • Galiana Moreno, Jesús M. y García Romero, Belén (2003) “La participación y representación de los trabajadores en la empresa en el modelo normativo espa¬ñol », Revista del Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales (43): 13-30.
  • Kluge, Norbert (2005) “Corporate governance with co-determination – a key element of the European social model”, Transfer 11(2): 163-177.
  • Rivero Lamas, Juan (2006) “La Sociedad Europea y la experiencia española sobre derechos de información y participación de los trabajadores”, in Ficari, Luisa (ed) Società Europea, Diritti di informazione e partecipazione dei lavoratori, Giuffrè Editore : 69-126.
  • Waddington, Jeremy (ed.) (2018) European Board-Level Employee Representation. National Variations in Influence and Power. Kluwer Law International: Alphen aan den Rijn.
  • Waddington, Jeremy and Conchon, Aline (2016) Board-Level Employee Representation in Europe. Priorities, Power and Articulation. Routledge: New York.
  • Sorge, Arndt (1976) “The Evolution of Industrial Democracy in the Countries of the European Community”, British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. XIV (3):274-f.



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