Partnership, with or without Democracy
Laval University - Département des relations industrielles
June 15, 2001
Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, Vol. 56, No. 2, 2001
This article draws on the results of a qualitative, longitudinal study of six pulp and paper plants in Quebec conducted between 1992 and 1998 to analyse the relationship between labour-management partnerships and workplace democracy. Our central hypothesis is that participation and democracy are the key issues involved in labour-management partnerships and that the outcome of partnership depends on both the local circumstances and the dynamics of the relationships between the actors in the firm. Partnership can therefore exist with or without democracy.
In the context of the same technical-productive paradigm, the social form through which organizational participation is implemented in quality improvement groups and in work teams varies according to workers' power. The plants that we studied can thus be divided into two groups in terms of organizational participation : at one extreme lies a cluster of plants where participation occurs without power, whereas at the other extreme lie those plants where participation with power represents a form of direct democracy. On the one hand, “consultative” quality improvement groups (i.e., participation without power) that operate in the context of a centralized and hierarchical organizational setting go hand-in-hand with “elementary” work teams (i.e., those that are primarily based on cooperation and mutual assistance and which reproduce the previous hierarchical structure). On the other hand, “substantive” quality improvement groups (i.e., participation with power) operating in a parity-based coordinating structure are found in those plants with work teams, thus giving workers more autonomous responsibilities.
The form of union participation in management also varied among the plants studied. We observed a shift of union action at the strategic level and on local tactical issues as regards the introduction of organizational innovations and technological changes. However, this increase in participation did not necessarily bring about workplace democracy or an increase in union power. In fact, this is only one of the orientations that can be chosen by local unions that get involved in union participation in management. Union participation fosters a number of tensions around the legitimacy of the new union role and also some dissatisfaction among workers, particularly over the issues of work intensification and the day-to-day problems that occur in the wake of organizational innovations. Depending on the way in which these tensions are resolved and worker dissatisfaction is dealt with, three possible patterns emerge: (1) the union terminates its participation and opposes organizational innovations because of the seriousness of the tensions and dissatisfactions generated by its participation and by the innovations; (2) the union continues to participate on an instrumental basis, legitimized solely by the protection of jobs; or (3) the union helps to redefine participation by taking into account workers' concerns, thereby initiating a process of workplace democratization. Unlike the second pattern, the third initiates a process through which the union is strengthened. However, this pattern is only possible if the local union is characterized by a number of features, such as enjoying access to significant external and internal resources as well as the existence of a lively climate of internal democracy.
Lastly, by combining the changes in union power with worker participation in work organization and union participation in management, it is possible to construct two contrasting patterns. In the worker democracy pattern, we observe the simultaneous presence of democratic participation in management, organizational participation with power, and a strengthening of the union. On the other hand, the pseudo-democracy pattern is characterized by instrumental participation, organizational participation without power, and a weakening of the union. The dimensions that make up a pattern are closely interrelated and mutually consistent. In the case of worker democracy, union participation in management has a democratic nature, which makes it possible for the union leaders to take better account of the day-to-day problems (work overload, favouritism, pressures, etc.) that workers encounter in the context of innovations and to make sure that organizational decisions respond to these problems. In so doing, they help to redefine organizational-level participative mechanisms to give more power to workers so that they can make the mechanisms work to their advantage. In this process, the local union makes itself stronger by heightening its legitimacy. The dynamics of the pseudo-democracy pattern are entirely different. Union leaders, concerned with protecting jobs, consider that day-to-day problems are the price to be paid for saving jobs. Their involvement in joint management bodies is focused on the single question of jobs and they leave aside the area of organizational innovations and the participative mechanisms at the organizational level. These innovations and mechanisms are therefore usually introduced unilaterally by management and give little power to workers. Workers do not have the backing of the union to redefine these innovations and mechanisms by strengthening the degree of autonomy and democracy. Further, the inability of the union leaders to respond to their members' demands contributes to a delegitimization of the union torn by deep tensions and divisions.
To summarize, we reject the overly uniform and harmonious conceptions of labour-management partnerships and of “high-performance work systems” in which all possible “best practices” come together in a virtuous circle, a vision that ignores tensions, paradoxes and contradictions. Partnership, by its very name, clearly signifies that the participation and involvement of all of the partners is a requirement of the production system, but it does not imply what the actual pattern of participation and involvement will be. Depending on the circumstances and the strategies of the social actors, different and conflicting orientations are possible and have in fact been observed.
JEL Classification: J53, L73Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: September 2, 2010
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