T3-07: Multinational companies and transnational agreements

7 September 2019, 09:00–10:30

Chair: Sara Lafuente Hernandez


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Costa I. (2017), Cross Borders Social Dialogue and Industrial Relations: Recent Trends and Issues, ILO Working Paper (unpublished report).
  • da Costa I., Pulignano V., Rehfeldt U. and Telljohann V. (2012), “Transnational Negotiations and the Europeanization of Industrial Relations: Potentials and Obstacles” in: European Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.18, n°2, June, p.123-39.
  • 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.
  • Isabel da Costa & Udo Rehfeldt (coordonnateurs), numéro spécial "La participation des salariés au niveau européen : comités d’entreprise européens, société européenne, syndicats européens" de La Revue de l'IRES n°71, 2011/4. http://www.ires-fr.org/publications/la-revue-de-lires/493-revue-de-lires...
  • Isabel da Costa & Udo Rehfeldt (2011): "Transnational Restructuring Agreements : General Overview and Specific Evidence from the European Automobile Sector", in Konstantinos Papadakis. (ed.), Shaping Global Industrial Relations: The Impact of International Framework Agreements .Geneva: International Labour Office/Palgrave Macmillan, collection: Advances in Labour Studies: 143-163. http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=526248
  • Telljohann V., da Costa I., Müller T., Rehfeldt U., Zimmer R. (2009a), European and International Framework Agreements – Practical Experiences and Strategic Approaches, Eurofound, Luxembourg, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
  • da Costa I., Rehfeldt U.  (2008), « Transnational Collective Bargaining at Company Level: Historical Developments », in Papadakis K. (ed.), Cross-Border Social Dialogue and Agreements: An emerging global industrial relations framework?, Geneva, ILO.
  • Isabel da Costa (1996): « L'étude des relations industrielles : passé, présent, avenir », in Gregor Murray, Marie-Laure Morin, Isabel da Costa, eds. : L'état des relations professionnelles, Les Presses de l'Université Laval et Octarés Editions. http://www.octares.com/boutique_fiche.asp?IdProd=23


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


  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2005). Organizations and meta-organizations. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 21(4), 429‑449.
  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2008). Meta-organizations. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Ahrne, G., Brunsson, N., & Kerwer, D. (2016). The paradox of organizing states: A meta-organization perspective on international organizations. Journal of International Organization Studies, 7(1), 5-24.
  • Brankovic, J. (2018). How do meta-organizations affect extra-organizational boundaries? The case of university associations. In Towards Permeable Boundaries of Organizations? (Vol. 57).
  • Fairbrother, P., & Hammer, N. (2005). Global unions: Past efforts and future prospects. Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, 60(3), 405-431.
  • Ford, M., & Gillan, M. (2015). The global union federations in international industrial relations: A critical review. Journal of Industrial Relations, 57(3), 456-475.
  • Kerwer, D. (2013). International organizations as meta-organizations: The case of the European Union. Journal of international organizations studies, 4(2), 40-53.
  • Helfen, M., & Fichter, M. (2011). Global production networks and global union federations: Re-assembling transnational union networks by International Framework Agreements?. In Global Labour University Conference, At Johannesburg, South Africa.
  • Malcourant, E., Vas, A., & Zintz, T. (2015). World Anti-Doping Agency: a meta-organizational perspective. Sport, Business and Management: An International Journal, 5(5), 451-471.


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