T3-15: Workers‘ voice in anti-union contexts

5 September 2019, 16:00–17:30

Chair: Ingrid Artus


Firms’ resistance to unionism and its determinants

Evidence from a field experiment

Patrick Nuess, Macroeconomic Policy Institute (IMK), Hans-Böckler-Foundation

Based on a correspondence experiment sending 2000 fictitious job applications to real vacancies (extended by 3000 applications in autumn 2018), the paper analyses firms resistance to unionism by revealing trade union membership in the hiring process. Due to the institutional structure of Germany as well as the available firm characteristics, the experiment furthermore tries to decompose firms potential resistance into different channels related to firm characteristics as the existence of a collective agreement and the contract type. Preliminary results suggest, resistance against trade union members in Germany exists for all tested occupations and regions with an average decline in callbacks by 30%. The analysis further indicates, that resistance against trade union members is lower in firms providing a temporary contract or with a collective agreement.

Fighting union busting

How do employees respond to management strategies against works councils and trade unions?

Oliver Thünken, Chemnitz University of Technology
Alrun Fischer, Alrun Fischer Beratung
Markus Hertwig, Chemnitz University of Technology
Daniel Menning, Chemnitz University of Technology

In recent years, there are increasing reports about union busting activities in German private sector companies (Behrens/Dribbusch 2018). Many cases have been documented in scientific research and public debate where employers or managers seek to hinder employee participation or undermine co-determination rights that are granted, in particular, by German labour law, the Works Constitution Act (Betriebsverfassungsgesetz). Union busting shows up in efforts, for instance, to prevent the election of a works council, to hinder the functioning of elected works councils or to agitate against trade unions and avoid collective bargaining (Rügemer/Wigand 2014; see also Artus et al. 2016). Those activities of union busting are by no means really new (see Bormann 2007). However, several studies and reports indicate that the “quality” of union busting in Germany has changed, that is, employers or managers exert intensive pressure on activists or works council members; they chose apparently illegal practices, which often are dealt with in courts; moreover, employers seek the support of specialized consulting firms, lawyers or employer associations to put union busting into practice.

While there has been already some research concerning the practices of union busting in Germany, little regard has been paid to the (counter-) strategies of the employee side. How do employees react to union busting methods? Which strategies do works councils chose to fight pressures from employers and managers? How effective are different strategies in diverse social settings? Those employee-side strategies are at the centre of the paper proposal outlined here.

The empirical basis stems from a research project that is currently funded by the Hans-Boeckler-Foundation (3/2018 until 9/2019) and carried out at Chemnitz University of Technology in cooperation with AFB/Beratung für Betriebsräte, Dresden, Germany. During the project, more than 25 case studies are being conducted in different sectors, in which union busting is found to be virulent. In each case, interviews are being conducted with works council members and the respective local trade union officials. Furthermore, expert interviews have been conducted with lawyers and trade union officials (ca. 50 interviews).

The research shows that union busting differs sharply in terms of intensity, motivations and tactics chosen by management. Some strategies aim at preventing the election of a works council, some seek to hinder the effective functioning of an existing works council, while others are directed against individual works council members; another set of strategies is used by employers to prevent collective bargaining. In many cases, attempts to establish a works council or to become more active are triggered by bad working conditions or managerial arbitrariness. Despite different motivations of union busting, employer strategies clearly differ concerning their intensity.

At the same time, we find a variety of patterns of employee reactions. While there are works councils or workforces that use a large range of strategies to fight union busting, others settle for only a restricted number of activities. Many works councils seek juridical support and advice from trade unions; others stick to media campaigns. What appears to be a crucial success factor is whether a works council or a works council initiative is backed by the workforce and whether activists is strong and durable enough to withstand the hostility from management (and sometimes from parts of the workforce).


  • Artus, I.; Kraetsch, C.; Röbenack, S. (2016): Betriebsratsgründungen. Typische Phasen, Varianten und Probleme, in: WSI-Mitteilungen 69(3), S. 183-191.
  • Behrens, M./Dribbusch, H. (2018): Employer Resistance to Works Councils: Evidence from Surveys amongst Trade Unions, in: German Politics (Online First).
  • Bormann, S. (2007): Angriff auf die Mitbestimmung. Unternehmensstrategien gegen Be-triebsräte - der Fall Schlecker. Berlin.
  • Rügemer, W.; Wigand, E. (2014): Die Fertgimacher. Arbeitsunrecht und professionelle Gewerkschaftsbekämpfung. Köln.


Employee voice in Ryanair

John Geary, University College Dublin

This paper examines the quest for effective employee voice in Ryanair. Ryanair is a fascinating case. It’s a case of a company that has uniquely manipulated variations across regulatory labour market regimes to its advantage. It has prospered enormously. Key to its success has been its ability to determine without union involvement the terms and conditions upon which its employees are recruited and managed. This strategy worked for decades. Now it looks like it has come undone following a campaign by its pilots and cabin crew in pursuit of union recognition and subsequently by management’s ostensible volte face to cede to their demands. This paper focuses on the pilots' organising campaign.

Ryanair stood as an outlier in the international airline industry for decades not only for its dramatic success and growth as a low cost airline, but for determining unilaterally the terms and conditions upon which it employed its staff. Unlike virtually all other European airlines, there was no union recognition and no collective bargaining. It is a case par excellence of a company that manipulated a permissive regulator regime for its own ends. Despite having aircraft located all across Europe, flying to all parts of Europe and further afield, and recruiting and locating its staff across 87 bases, all of its employees are considered Irish staff. That is, under employment legislation, their workplace is ‘located’ in Ireland. This is, or was at least, permissible under European and Irish law. This has afforded Ryanair considerable advantages in terms of maintaining low recruitment costs, sustaining flexible working arrangements, and maximising particular working hour structures. Key, too, to this model of employment was its ability to evade union recognition.

This employment relations model would now seem, ostensibly at least, to be in tatters on foot of ceding to a pilots’ campaign for union recognition. However, early fieldwork findings suggest that the matter is far more complicated and that union recognition has been ceded by the company to disable and weaken the pilots’ cross-national organising campaign. At the outset, the pilots sought a voice in management decision-making at the level of the company. Union recognition, as ceded by the company, ensures the pilots ‘return’ to their national pilot federations and negotiate at a national level thus reducing the likelihood of any concerted co-ordinated European-wide collective bargaining effort.

The paper traces the airline’s employment relations strategy, employees’ response, the manner in which the pilots sought to organise against the company, the obstacles they faced, how they were overcome and how the company responded.

There is a rich literature on how companies resist union organisation and how workers are or are not able to overcome such managerial objections. The paper investigates if these factors hold in this case. In most cases, however, prior research has looked at individual workplaces, companies or sectors, all of which are located within one nation state. This project is original in its attempt to examine union recognition in the context of a ‘multi-national’ company with subsidiaries (bases) in many European countries, operating in a complex and fluid regulatory environment.

Data is being collected currently principally through in-depth interviews with pilots’ activists/representatives, union organizers, pilots, legal representatives and management.

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