Towards Socially Sensitive Corporate Restructuring? Comparative Remarks on Collective Bargaining Developments in Germany, France and Italy

Article excerpt

Abstract.

Rapidly changing markets in the context of globalization call for increasingly frequent restructuring to sustain the competitiveness of individual firms. To meet this need while minimizing consequent job loss, the social partners in major European countries have devised a variety of decentralization mechanisms that enhance local-level flexibility without fundamentally calling into question the traditional national models of collective bargaining. Analysing the use of "opening clauses" in German industry agreements, France's firm-level "derogation agreements" and mandatory bargaining on "workforce planning", and Italy's tripartite "territorial agreements ", the author concludes with a plea for a supranational framework to support socially sensitive restructuring across Europe.

European industrial relations are undergoing profound structural changes, which are having a significant impact on how firms and employees react to corporate restructuring at country level. Against this background, this article offers a comparative analysis of Germany, France and Italy in an attempt to show that these countries' approaches to restructuring, while still shaped by nationally different legal, social, cultural, political and historical factors, are nonetheless moving towards a common pattern of action.

There are many reasons why these three countries were selected for the study of this convergence, but two of them are particularly important. First, two large-scale international research projects co-financed by the European Social Fund (ESF) have generated a number of very useful and up to date case studies and essays on these countries' corporate restructuring processes. And second, these countries feature a number of common trends, albeit to different extents: trade unions and union density are declining; working conditions are increasingly determined at enterprise level; pressure is growing to downgrade working conditions in return for employment security; derogation and deregulation are being widely sought and accepted; and extensive restructuring of important local firms has created a widespread sense of shock. At any rate, the question of how to strike a balance between workers' protection and the necessity of corporate restructuring is the key issue in every country. In this context, the role of labour law is not simply to protect workers, but to balance protection and efficiency within national economies. While protecting workers affected by restructuring is unquestionably an important goal in the short term, broad trends in the pattern of union action suggest that workers' representatives are beginning to acknowledge that facilitating corporate restructuring, although painful in the short term, will serve workers' interests in the long run. At the same time, the European Union (EU) is criticized for lack of intervention and excessive confidence in market freedoms.

Following a brief introductory presentation of the framework of enquiry, this article concentrates on the impact on corporate restructuring of recent developments in the structure and functioning of collective bargaining, first, in terms of the shift in collective bargaining from the national or industry level towards the company or establishment level; and, second, in terms of the role of trade unions and/or employee representatives in the flexibilization of protective labour regulations. Finally, a concluding section looks at the challenges and opportunities that should be addressed at EU level.

The evolving structure of collective bargaining in the context of corporate restructuring

Business restructuring used to be an occasional occurrence, an immediate response to urgent necessity brought about by an unexpected change in circumstances. But in today's context of economic globalization, restructuring follows as a natural consequence of the growing international connections between markets. Continuous and pervasive company restructuring has thus become a fact of life (European Commission, 2004). …