What Makes Labor-Management Cooperation Work? a Comparative Analysis of Workplace Partnership in Germany, the Netherlands, and France

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
TW2.3.01 (Tower Two)
Martin Behrens, WSI Hans Böckler Stiftung, Düsseldorf, Germany
Saraï Sapulete, Tilburg University School of Economics and Management, Tilburg, Netherlands
Marcus Kahmann, IRES, Paris, France
Arjen van Witteloostuijn, Tilburg University School of Economics and Management, Tilburg, Netherlands
Adelheid Hege, IRES, Paris, France
Wolfram Brehmer, WSI Hans Böckler Stiftung, Düsseldorf, Germany
What explains why some workplaces have cooperative industrial relations while others are mired in conflict between capital and labor? While scholars have emphasized the role played by different national industrial relations  institutions in providing the basis for labor-management cooperation, this paper argues that variation between firms is central to explaining incidents of labor-management cooperation.  Our analysis builds on Edward et al. (2006) and their view of cooperation as a highly uncertain and unstable process  dependent on the alignment between specific ‘concerns’ held by labor and capital. While control concerns include rights and powers in day-to-day relations, developmental concerns relate to potentially shared longer-term objectives.

The analysis is  based on a comparison of establishment-level labor relations in the private services and chemical engineering sectors in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. These countries are typically seen as having IR institutions supportive of labor’s collective voice. For our study we have investigated labor-management cooperation in six establishments, one for each industry in each country.  While establishments in the chemical industry are predominantly large and offer their products in international (if not global) markets, establishments in private services tend to be small and focused on domestic markets.  

Our qualitative data allow us to investigate how differences between establishments support or inhibit labor-management cooperation. A first factor to be observed is the power of labors’ representation at the establishment level. We assume labor-management collaboration to be more likely in establishments with very weak union/works-council structures as well as very strong representational power. In the first case labor might be drawn into a collaborative effort on employers’ terms (asymmetrical collaboration), while in the second context labor  has the power to prevent the employer from acting unilaterally. While establishment-level union density and works council resources provide for an important basis for representational power, we also assume that such power can be derived from broader network structures, connecting establishment-level representation to other key actors such as higher-level works council bodies or labor representatives at the company’s supervisory board.

Secondly, we conceptualize labor management cooperation at the level of personal interaction between key establishment-level actors. We propose that labor representatives are more likely to act cooperatively / embrace partnership when earlier, positive experiences with management lead them to expect their counterparts to play ‘by the rules’.

Such a relationship is more likely when both representatives have a long tenure in the current position and/or share job experiences. According to this perspective, personal interaction will also shape how key actors view the challenges facing the company, thereby moderating the strength of their developmental concerns. 

With this paper we will add to the current debate on within-country variation of labor relations and seek to provide new insights on the foundation of labor-management cooperation at the establishment-level.

Edwards, P./Bélanger, J./Wright, M. (2006): The Bases of Compromise in the Workplace: A Theoretical Framework. In: British Journal of Industrial Relations 44:1, 125-145