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November Midlands Labour & Employment Relations Society Meeting

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Birmingham & Midland Institute

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Ruth Reaney, London School of Economics, Genevieve Coderre-LaPalme, University of Birmingham

Beyond ideology: comparing confrontational union responses to restructuring in France

For several decades, workplace restructuring has been a central feature of a shift towards market-driven employment relations in both the public and private sectors in France (Beaujolin-Bellet and Schmidt 2012). Within this challenging environment, local unions have responded to workplace restructuring in various ways. Whilst ‘cooperative’ strategies such as concession bargaining and the negotiation of social plans are common responses to this type of restructuring, some unions have employed more ‘confrontational’ strategies such as political mobilisation to prompt negotiations about alternative plans (Pulignano and Stewart 2013; Marginson and Meardi 2009; Foster and Scott 1998; Jalette and Hebdon 2012; Greer et al 2013). Under what conditions do unions adopt a confrontational approach? While external circumstances (Frege and Kelly 2003; Jalette and Hebdon 2012; Martinez-Lucio and Stuart 2005) and power resources (Levesque and Murray 2005; Murray et al 2010) help shape the opportunities and threats which unions see in their environment, internal ideology and identity are also considered to be key factors in shaping and sustaining union strategy (Bacon and Blyton 2004; Levesque and Murray 2010; Hodder and Edwards 2015; Hyman 2001).

In examining local unions’ choices to engage confrontational responses to restructuring, this paper compares case studies of ‘critical restructuring incidents’ in two of the country’s most unionised sectors, public healthcare and automobile manufacturing. In doing so, it extends understanding of unions’ tactical choices in responding to restructuring, thereby offering insight into the extent to which internal and external factors shape trade union strategic choice.

Findings from the study indicate that inter- and intra-union variation in strategy across and within cases is explained by the interplay which occurs between ideology and resources. Whereas some unions in the cases had confrontational responses because this forms part of their usual repertoire of action and general union identity, others opted for a confrontational response to ensure their access to resource in the future. Unions which are generally considered in the literature to be “non-militant” engaged in confrontational action in instances where it was deemed the best way to protect their legitimacy and power within the organisation and in the eyes of employees. Patterns within the case findings therefore suggest that unions’ responses to restructuring, although ostensibly similar, are motivated by various external and internal factors, demonstrating that union strategic choice is neither determined by external factors nor professed union ideology. Thus, restructuring poses strategic dilemmas for unions, forcing them to navigate the process by balancing union identity with membership and workforce preferences.

Ruth Reaney is an LSE Fellow in the Department of Management with research interests in work and employment. Her current research concerns trade union response to decreasing institutional security, with specific focus on the French labour movement.

Genevieve Coderre-LaPalme is a Lecturer in Employment Relations at Birmingham Business School. Her research so far has focused on comparative industrial relations, in particular trade union strategies towards restructuring. She is also developing research around employment, stratification and disability.


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Birmingham & Midland Institute

9 Margaret Street

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B3 3BS

United Kingdom

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