“To Rock or Roll? Organized Labor’s Responses to the Liberalization of Welfare in Europe.”

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
CLM.3.05 (Clement House)
Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
The continued liberalization of welfare provisions across Europe during the last three decades signals the progressive hollowing out of inherited social settlements. This paper examines how labor movements in two key coordinated market economies, Denmark and Germany, have oscillated between opposition and accommodation in their attempts to shape how the trend evolved. This analysis not only uncovers and explains divergent responses. It also leverages these empirical findings to revisit the choices made by historical institutionalist scholars two decades ago when they moved “beyond corporatism” to build “toward a new framework for the study of labor in advanced capitalism” (Thelen 1993). The paper does so in the service of seeking to remedy an increasingly striking – and I believe ultimately untenable – contrast. On the one hand, the past three decades have witnessed a large shift in relative class power in rich democracies, which arguably produced (or at least coincided with) both universally increasing income (and wealth) inequalities within countries (Hacker & Pierson 2011, Piketty 2014) and the spread of new economic uncertainties for workers across the income distribution (Baccaro & Howell 2011, Crouch 2010, Hacker 2007). Yet, on the other hand, historical institutionalist scholars of comparative political economy have tended to de-emphasize class conflicts and evolving power differentials, turning their attention instead to company strategies, cross-class producer coalitions and efficiency-based theories of market institutions.

Rather than trying to brush away the undeniable insights of VoC-based theorizing on comparative capitalism – as has been the tendency of many scholars critical of the turn toward “a-ideational” analysis – this paper widens the analytic lens. More sociological in character and addressing power dynamics, it is equipped to tackle the political construction of collective interests (cf. Anderson and Lynch 2007, Martin and Swank 2012) and align its research methodology to historical institutionalism’s ontological commitment to complex (i.e. inactive or multiple) and probabilistic forms of causality (Hall 2003). Doing so uncovers the mechanisms through which unions continue to play a key role in sustaining societies’ capacity for social solidarity and resilience in the face of neo-liberalism (Barnes & Hall 2013, Thelen 2012).