Idar Helle – Precarious work and the question of transnational union action

Idar Helle – Precarious work and the question of transnational union action

The terrain to be explored in this study will be an enduring conflict after the fulfillment of the EU single market over twenty years ago: The upholding of collective agreements versus the declared political aim of flexibility in the European labour markets.

A starting point could be to look into the relations between collective agreements, law regulation and the question of precarisation of work from a comparative point of view. The vastness of this material indicates the importance of cut & scope here. I intend to limit the research to a limited number of groups among service and industrial workers (construction, janitors, security, metal workers in offshore and ship yards) and likewise to a limited number of labour markets / systems of industrial relations (Norway, Germany, maybe France, Spain, UK) in the twenty years period between 1992 and 2012.

Some key questions would be: (i) To what extent have collective agreements between unions and employers in these sectors resisted against the aims of job flexibility and individual employment contracts?, (ii) in what direction have changes in regulation of law on national and EU level altered the industrial relations in the above mentioned sectors and countries?, (iii) to what degree have the unions activated their organizational structures to counter the tendencies of precarious employment?, and, perhaps most importantly, (iv) why have there emerged (or: why do there remain) such substantial differences in the strength of collective agreements and development of workers real wages between the sectors and between the systems of industrial relations?

Although its comparative approach, there is little doubt that this first phase of the subproject inevitably will be shaped by my former and ongoing research on contemporary Norwegian trade unionism. The ongoing book project on Arbeidsmandsforbundet (the General Workers union federation) and field research and interviews connected to Fellesforbundet (the largest union federation in the private sector) are meant to constitute the pillars for the comparisons with labour relations in corresponding sectors in a limited number of European countries.

The second part of the subproject should move from a comparative to a transnational European perspective. Here the study will try to follow the paths between the national unions and activities of the European labour movement concerning the question of collective agreements and flexibility. Has the overall tendency been public resistance to or silent accept of flexibility strategy of the EU and in the EEA? Do the actions or the inaction of the unions correspond with their collective strategic aims, or is the European level mostly dominated by reactive action to avoid the worst possible attacks on the existing systems of industrial relations? How can we assess the transnational repertoire in use by the unions in this twenty years period, and is it possible to identify specific strategies and uses of repertoire that have brought power to the unions as transnational actors? In the search for the source of power in the transnational playing field, the shortcomings of the labour movement strategies and the reasons for these shortcomings should be equally taken into account.