T3-09: New forms of employee voice

7 September 2019, 09:00–10:30

Chair: Inger Marie Hagen


Flexibilizing organizations: Consequences for worker participation?

Jan Kees Looise, University of Twente

Since about the 1980s we experience an ongoing shift from bureaucratic to more flexible organizations. Indications of this shift are:

  • breaking up of conglomerates into more focused and flexible companies
  • outsourcing of parts of production and services to other organizations, including those in low cost countries
  • growing accent on return on investment
  • strengthening of the position of shareholders (viz. top management)
  • replacement of forms of vertical command and communication by lateral relationships within organizational networks and alliances
  • growing role of information technology in production, services and organization
  • growing accent on smart production and agile (teal) organizing
  • replacement of permanent labor by flexible labor

This list is not exhaustive, but is long enough to give an indication of the amount and impact of the changes that are taken place since about the 1980s. Given the fact that these changes will continue to take place in the future it is impossible to give a definite picture of where this organizational change will end. The only thing we can do is trying to understand how the ongoing and possible new changes impact organizational forms, corporate governance and the arrangement of work. And in line with that the position and form of worker participation as it exists now.

Worker participation (WP) as we know it is a product of bureaucratic capitalism that mainly developed from about 1890 and lasted till about the 1980s. During this period most organizations – and especially large ones – became bureaucratized while industrial relations became institutionalized and bureaucratized as well. Trade unions became recognized as legitimate representatives of and negotiators on behalf of workers at different levels (organizations, industries, regional and national) and in most European countries WP at company level was institutionalized, be it legally or by collective agreement. In this institutionalization of WP two main lines developed: WP via worker representatives in works councils and/or trade unions delegations aimed at company policies and WP via worker representatives in supervisory boards aimed at corporate governance. From the 1980’s both lines have been extended to the European level via the Directives on Employee Involvement, on European Works Councils and on Employee Involvement in European Companies (European Company Statute). Besides these formal and representative forms of WP in most European companies informal and direct forms of WP have developed as well. According to the Third European Company Survey (2015) in more than half (56%) of the company establishments there are `extensive and supported’ forms of direct employee participation, so this is quite substantive. As most of the formal arrangements for WP were developed in relation to bureaucratic organizations, it can be questioned whether these arrangements are still actual and effective in relation to the ongoing flexibilization of organizations. And if this is no longer the case, what should be done to make WP actual and effective again? Can new forms of representative WP be developed? Or should informal direct participation - be it partly - take over the role of formal representative WP? These questions have been debated already for quite some time, but not yet in a very thorough way. Both advocates and opponents of change in the existing WP-arrangements seem mainly driven by ideological or political motives - either led by the wish to get rid of trade unions and or works councils or by the conviction that we need to keep them as they are - though an in depth analysis of the place and role of WP in flexible organizations is missing. This is also due to the fact that, although overall characteristics of these organizations become gradually better known, it is still not yet very clear what the characteristics of flexible organizations are. Therefore this paper will try to bring some clarity using a historical and differentiated approach

Flexibilization may be an important trend since the 1980s, this does not mean that - as some authors seem to expect - everything is or will be flexibilized in the same way and amount. In general flexibilization can be seen as a trend that takes place already since long in Western Europe – perhaps even since the Middle Ages – comparable with and in relation to trends like individualization, economization, rationalization and so on. And it is true that this flexibilization trend influences most elements of our societies – especially since the acceleration of it since the 1980s. This justifies the use of terms like `the flexible age’ or `flexible capitalism’. But in practice there are large differences in the way and amount flexibilization influences existing institutions and organizations. Some institutions and organizations are only limitedly affected, while others are heavily influenced. Regarding the flexibilization of organizations we can see large differences in form as well as amount between e.g. international and national organizations; profit and non-profit organizations; industrial and service organizations; technology intensive and extensive organizations and so on. In the context of this paper it is not possible to distinguish between all these variations in organizations. Therefore we focus on three main historically dominant types of organizations, namely: large (international) organizations, middle-sized organizations work and small organizations and one recent new organizational form: the platform organization (although still has to been whether this form will hold as a really new type of organization or will assimilate to one of the existing forms). In the paper the flexibilization of all four types organizations will be evaluated in combination with the consequences for WP. Basis for the evaluation is the conceptual and historical literature on the different types of organization and the way they have been flexibilized and the available empirical data about WP in these organizations (mainly from the Netherlands and the EU). As empirical evidence is only limited available, the paper will have a rather explorative character. The results of the paper will contribute to further theory development on the differentiated flexibilization of organizations over longer periods and the effects on WP and to more extensive follow-up research.


  • Eurofound (2015), Workplace practices: patterns, performance and well-being. Third European Company Survey. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
  • Harisson, B. (1994), Lean and mean. The changing landscape of corporate power in the age of flexibility. New York: Basic Books.
  • Jacoby (2004), Employing bureaucracy. Managers, unions and the transformation of work in the 20th century. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
  • Jonge, J. de, A. Hol & B. de Lange (2014), Worker participation on the move. Changing organizations and the role of the works council (in Dutch). Hoofddorp: Vakmedianet.


‘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.

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