Restructuring of Work and Union Representation: A Developing Framework for Workplace Industrial Relations in Britain and Italy

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Autoworkers and unions in Italy and Britain

A developing framework for workplace industrial relations in Britain and Italy

This paper explores the implications of teamwork for trade unions, especially the assumption that new management strategies supporting teamwork may lead to the marginalisation of union organisation and influence. The fieldwork involves a cross-national comparison of Fiat in Italy and Rover in the British Midlands. The argument is advanced that institutional and socio-political factors rooted in the national system of industrial relations shape unions' responses to the general management derive of changing the organisation of work in the car industry.

Introduction The organisational form of teamwork, whose main aim is both to elicit commitment and manage directly relations with workers, has important implications for trade union organisation and influence. In a period of intense organisational change arising from the increased exposure to international and national competition, which demands greater organisational and individual flexibility at the employment level, understanding these issues is fundamental in analysing the changes in the political and economic framework, and the restructuring of work organisation.

This article examines the implications of teamwork for trade unions by analysing the unions' responses to the managerial strategy supporting the concept of teamwork in the British and the Italian system of industrial relations. Evidence is provided from the car industry and, in particular, from Rover and Fiat-auto. Although the general consequence of the organisational change has been to put in doubt inherited conceptions of the character and purpose of unions 'as collective organisations or social movements' (Hyman, 1994: io8), the implications of work reorganisation vary between countries and the pattern of responses has differed likewise.

In analysing how local unions redefine their role within the employment relationship in response to management practices at the workplace, considerable emphasis has been put on two main theoretical issues. On the one hand, it is suggested that local unions are reinforcing their co-operative dimension, becoming part of `productivity coalitions' (Windolf, 1989) and collaborating with management in policies to enhance company performance. The new cooperative representation of interests is encapsulated in the notion of 'social partnership', which contrasts with the tradition of class struggle and social mobilisation (Hyman, 1996: 69). On the other hand, it is claimed that the marginalisation of local unions arises from the new management's approach, which emphasises 'individualism' (Guest, 1987). In this view, more emphasis is put on teamwork as a form of work reorganisation, which is strongly related to notions of corporate culture aimed at improving competitiveness and productivity by modifying the technical division of labour. This culture is likely to ensure subjective commitment to management from the workforce through the identification with the goals of the organisation. Thus, it is not difficult to envisage various situations in which unions, since they may resist corporate strategies and create an element of uncertainty through traditional expressions of collectivism, need to be eroded and marginalised (Marchington, 1990; Ackers et al., 1996).

By outlining the common teamwork rationale as a managerial tool in order to establish direct communication among workers within the team for 'problem solving' and to manage conflict on the shop-floor, this study demonstrates that marginalisation is a complex issue and explains the differences within and between plants and countries by referring to divergences in the national industrial relations system. The main argument is that unions' responses to the introduction of teamwork have strongly differed according to the national context and the firm's location. Hence, institutional and political factors connected with different systems of industrial relations, and diverse workplace union traditions arising from geographical location, must be explored as possible explanations for the unions' reactions to the restructuring of work organisation. …