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06. september 2012

The economic crisis - testing employee relations

Paper by Trine P. Larsen and Steen E. Navrbjerg

Across the world, companies are challenged by the recent economic crisis. In labour market systems with strong traditions of collective bargaining, the handling of this situation at the workplace requires tact not only from management, but also from shop stewards. However, whilst company based bargaining during the recent economic crisis has been subject to some research, little is known about how this affect employee relations.

This paper addresses this literature gap by examining the relations between shop stewards and colleagues in companies highly affected, less affected and not affected by the crisis. The main focus is whether the employee relations change in distinct economic situations, particularly when shop stewards participate in company based responses to the crisis.

The main argument is that although Danish shop stewards are involved in developing local responses to the crisis, most manage to keep their colleagues on board, even if decisions concern wage cutbacks and dismissals. However, a limit exists to the intense collaboration; in companies hardest hit by the crisis shop stewards are more likely to find conflicts of interests between management and colleagues stressful and fewer feel respected by colleagues.

Shop stewards that adopt a more adversarial stance by not compromising employee interests tend to spend less time on conflicts internally among employees and feel no distance to colleagues. Therefore, shop stewards’ engagement in local bargaining comes at a cost and may jeopardise their relations with colleagues. It also reveals that shop stewards have to dance (and sometimes box) with both management and colleagues.

Paper presented at the CRIMT Conference, Montreal, Canada, 25-27 October 2012.