Centralization of Decision-Making and Local Democratic Representation: Case Study Evidence

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW1.3.04 (Tower One)
Saraï Sapulete, Tilburg University School of Economics and Management, Tilburg, Netherlands
Wolfram Brehmer, WSI Hans Böckler Stiftung, Düsseldorf, Germany
Adelheid Hege, IRES, Paris, France
Marcus Kahmann, IRES, Paris, France
Arjen van Witteloostuijn, Tilburg University School of Economics and Management, Tilburg, Netherlands
Centralization of decision-making and local democratic representation: Case study evidence

Koch and Fox (1978) have argued already in the 1970s that centralization of decision-making in organizations limits the potential for (direct) participation in local decision processes. Centralization takes place, for example, at the level of large multinational enterprises, where decision-making is being centralized at headquarters, but also in smaller organizations, where services are centralized into shared service centers. The current paper studies the way centralization of decision-making affects local representative bodies (works councils) in their democratic representation. It specifically focuses on the way in which local works councils deal with centralization practices regarding the representation of their constituency. We aim to answer the following research question: How do local works councils in different institutional contexts deal with centralization practices in their democratic representation?

First, we focus on the structure of the works council (for example, its ties with higher-level representative bodies, such as a central works council). Second, we examine the communication and relation with the works council’s constituency, being interested to see which role the local works council takes up in the representation of its constituency and how it can best perform this role in times of centralization. Works councils’ influence in centralizing organizations may be reduced to implementation of strategic decisions taken at a higher level, instead of advising and co-deciding on these strategic decisions. In that case, a trade-off has to be made between legitimacy and strategic influence, in the sense that a higher influence on strategic decision-making leads to a lower legitimacy among the local constituency. This has been described for the union situation by, for instance, Baccaro et al. (2003: 122), stating that “when unions become entrenched in high-level politics, they may fail to invest in their relationship with workers and other social groups and hence undermine their own bases of power and influence in the longer run.” The question is thus under which conditions works councils are able to represent their local constituency’s interests in a centralizing organization?

We study our research question by comparing six cases of local representation practices of works councils in the service sector and the chemical sector, in three different countries (France, Germany and the Netherlands). In this way, we aim to make a distinction in works council representational practices in different contexts, with different, yet well-developed, representation structures. We chose the chemical and service sector as industries of interest because they differ clearly in their employment and working conditions, and thus could provide new insights into the way works councils in different industries operate and deal with centralization.


Baccaro, L., Hamann, K., & Turner, L. (2003). The politics of labour movement revitalization: the need for a revitalized perspective. European Journal of Industrial Relations, 9(1), 119-133.

Koch, J. L., & Fox, C. L. (1978). The industrial relations setting, organizational forces, and the form and content of worker participation. Academy of Management Review, 3(3), 572-583