European practices of the union ver.di

Proposal of a field theoretical perspective

Nele Dittmar, TU Berlin

Research in social sciences often draws rather pessimistic conclusions on the perspectives for trade union action in Europe. Differences in union cultures and between industrial relations systems, adverse material interests and asymmetric power relations within a competitive European economy are found to be restricting factors. It is less common, however, to look inside a trade union and take account of power relations or different practices prevailing within the organization, which might also hinder or facilitate European action (see Rüb 2009 as an exception).

In this paper, I would like to propose a field theoretical perspective (e.g. Bourdieu/Wacquant 1992) on the possibilities for and obstacles to trade union action in Europe. From this perspective, which was so far rarely applied to industrial relations or trade unions (see however Meise 2014 and Pernicka 2015 as examples), an organization is neither seen as a means of rational actors to reach a specified goal, nor as determined by its environment. Rather, a field – and an organization-as-field – is conceived of as a power structure in which actors struggle over organizational goals and strategies. It is assumed, however, that these struggles can only be explained by looking at both, the power relations within the organization-as-field itself and the position of the organization in other fields (Bourdieu 2005: 205).

Drawing on a case study of the German services union ver.di , I would like to sketch out how power relations and “rules of the game” in the German and European fields of industrial relations as well as within the union itself influence ver.dis Europe-related work. This might help to draw a more differentiated picture of trade union action in Europe in two respects: on the one hand, it could bring to light Europe-related practices of unions, which are overlooked by a macro-level perspective; on the other hand, it might point to obstacles located within the unions themselves.

The German field of industrial relations has been characterized by a relative balance of power between the organizations of labour and capital and a prevailing logic of concertation until the beginning of the 1990s. Since then, however, power relations have shifted to the detriment of unions, one reason for this being European and international economic integration. Schroeder (2016) differentiates three different “worlds” of industrial relations in Germany by now. The regulatory capacity of unions, employers’ associations and collective agreements decreases drastically from the first (e.g. core areas of the public sector) to the third world (e.g. big parts of the private services sector) (Schroeder 2016: 378f.). With the changing power relations, the rules of the game are also increasingly contested. The logic of concertation is put into question and both unions and employers’ associations have re-oriented themselves to some extent away from a “logic of influence” towards a “logic of membership” (Schmitter/Streeck 1999).

At EU-level, most commentators feel that only a rudimentary field of industrial relations has evolved, including elements of a rather symbolic euro-corporatism (Bieling/Schulten 2002), characterized by an imbalance of power to the disadvantage of trade unions. While EU-industrial relations institutions are arguably generally less developed than in Germany, power relations and “rules of the game” still vary in different economic sectors and policy areas at European level.

The union ver.di which is itself very heterogeneous – it organizes employees from all three “worlds of industrial relations” and encompasses 13 departments responsible for different economic sectors – is embedded in complex power relations in national and European (and – to make it even more complex –international) industrial relations fields. Affected by developments within these fields, rules of the games and power relations within ver.di are also changing. One can observe a certain shift in priorities to practices more strongly oriented towards a “logic of membership” (see for example ver.di’s organizational development program “Perspective – ver.di grows”). Rüb and Platzer (2015: 180) see an explicit conflict between Europe-related work (in their case, work with European Works Councils) and ver.di’s current priority on winning and activating (new) members. However, there are departments in ver.di in which “Europe” is an integral part of day-to-day work. Representatives of ver.di’s transport department work in close cooperation with “their” European union federation and workers and their unions in the transport sector have been able to block several EU-regulations through intensive lobbying and mobilizations at EU-level. A representative of ver.di’s health and social services department speaks of times in which (s)he has invested 100% of her/his working time in European issues. And ver.di has played an important part in the European citizens’ initiative “Right2Water”.

The proposed paper will take a closer look at how these diverse Europe-related practices within the union ver.di could be better understood by taking into account shifting power relations and changing rules of the game within industrial relations fields at national and European level as well as within the union itself.


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