Precarity and No Resistance? Towards an Explanation of an Apparent Paradox in Western Societies

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW1.3.04 (Tower One)
Svenja Flechtner, University of Flensburg, Flensburg, Germany
Gloria Kutscher, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Department of Management, Institut for Gender and Diversity in Organizations, Vienna, Austria
Labour markets of Western capitalist societies have experienced an apparent paradox in recent years: on the one hand, trade union coverage and labour disputes have decreased in many European countries, while conditions on the labour market have deteriorated for employees in many sectors (Antonczyk, Fitzenberger, & Sommerfeld, 2010; OECD, 2004) and while the number of working-poor has increased (Butterwegge, 2009). This is surprising because group action of working class people has been a counter measure to different forms of inequality, viewed from a historical and political perspective and according to many schools of thought and approaches across disciplines (Hanappi & Hanappi-Egger, 2013; Ollman, 1972).

The economic literature considers different explanations for this observation. Fitzenberger, Kohn and Wang (2011) discuss factors like higher worker mobility or flexibilization on labour markets. Related to this, the conflict between regular staff and an increasing body of temporary or subcontract workers is another aspect, as well as free-riding (Goerke & Pannenberg, 2011). Yet, such explanations do not seem to be quite complete. For example, Groh-Samberg (Groh-Samberg, 2006)  discusses a collective feeling of betrayal and frustration among working class members as well as the strategy of adaptation to precarious living conditions which, at the same time, thwarts protest.

This paper addresses the topic from an institutional and interdisciplinary perspective in order to provide a more comprehensive and embedded understanding of the described developments in their societal context. Undisputedly the environment for employees on the labour market has changed significantly - for instance, in Germany, with liberalisations of the labour market in the context of the Agenda 2010 and an increase of precarious part-time employments, or in Denmark with a reduction of social welfare spending and liberalising policies in the context of flexicurity (Kvist & Greve, 2011). Employee representing institutions such as labour unions, which are considered to provide structure to their employees and their possible responses (Klages, 2009) suffer from decreasing membership (Godard & Frege, 2014; Phelan, 2007; Pontusson, 2013). In this regard, the pressing question is: how do employees conceive of their changing institutional environment and how does it shape their responses and actions?

In order to make sense of the above mentioned dynamics, we benefit from a broad variety of theories from different disciplines. Approaches which broach the issue of individualization and generalization propose mechanisms which dissolve peoples’ sense of belongingness to a socio-economic group (Bennett, 2012; Jones, 2011; Michaels, 2006). Other theories state that individual and group interests may be contradicting and thus undermine group action effectiveness (Apolte, 2012; Olson 1965). Specifically psychological theories identify mechanisms which can either foster or repress modes of engagement and action (i.e. reactance, learned helplessness, attribution, control beliefs, and perceived self-efficacy) (Bandura, 1977, 1997; Herkner, 2004).

Thus, in our conceptual investigation we approach the paradox dynamics of precarious working conditions, fewer protests and decreasing unionization twofold: At the individual level, we ask how employees conceive of their situation in their institutional context and if and why employees (do not) organize as a group. At the collective action level, we inquire if there are institutional dynamics that prevent workers from organizing, even though this would meet their interests.


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