Industrial Relations and the World Economic Crisis in the Context of Globalisation: From Europe to the World

By Sapelli, Giulio | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Industrial Relations and the World Economic Crisis in the Context of Globalisation: From Europe to the World


Sapelli, Giulio, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


Within the Crisis of Globalisation

It would be difficult to maintain that prevailing theories of industrial relations have been able to comprehend the tendencies that emerged in the recent world economic crisis (Sapelli 2008). State of the art discussions and scientific predictions circulating in Europe shortly before the crisis were dominated by functionalist theories. (2) According to these approaches, the European monetary union and the liberalisation process should have brought about, through a mechanical institutional and social adjustment, a convergence in the behaviour of individual actors and especially the behaviour of the collective bodies through which interest groups are organised. These views, which failed entirely to perceive the approaching crisis, affirmed the universal validity of so-called neocorporatist concentration.

As it is well known, these theories did not account for the harsh reality of the actual mechanisms of deregulation at the general societal level, reflected both in the history of industrial relations in the United States, and more recently in the diffusion of the neoliberal revolution. In Anglo-American capitalism, the latter has manifested itself both at the societal level and at the level of the business enterprise. A comparative analysis of the literature of the 1990s highlights very different sets of reaction models. An early, bold analysis of employer organisation responses was that of Peter Sheldon (1998; see also Bamber et al 2004). The main conclusions that can be derived from this literature will now be synthesised (Crouch and Traxler eds 1995; Van Ruyssevelt and Visser eds 1996; Ferner and Hyman eds 1998).

In France, the main actors in the process of resistance and of defending country-specific institutions were seen to be the government and entrepreneurs who favoured the regulation of the enterprise bargaining process. Following the French neo-mercantilist tradition, the national impact of European processes was, as a consequence, rather weak. The French model also prevailed in the case of Belgium where agreement between government and trade unions to pursue a strong centralisation of the industrial relations system is now being subjected to serious crises. What is interesting in these cases is the extraordinary degree of institutional 'stickiness' and resistance relative to the pressures for deregulation. By contrast, the Dutch case is different since the prevailing sentiment favours partnership between government and business, mutually engaged in a moderate transition towards a much more decentralised and flexible system (see, for example, Visser 1998).

Spain--following the practice of previous Socialist administrations--is characterised by the strong role of government which pushed for institutionalisation at all levels of the industrial relations system, while actively pursuing an equally strong policy aimed at increasing labour market flexibility. From this perspective, Spain is perhaps the country where privatisation and liberalisation processes had the most significant consequences for industrial relations. The root causes of the situation in Spain are to be traced to the unravelling of the corporatist mechanisms of the Franco regime, which have not been replaced by a stable industrial relations process in either central or local bargaining. Further evidence comes from Portugal which, since the end of the Salazar regime, has been going through an experience comparable to the Spanish one.

From the perspective adopted so far, it should not come as a surprise that Scandinavia is the other area where the liberalisation pressure is quite strong. Here the crisis of pro-labour governments is extremely deep. It has opened the road to the hegemony of business among the social actors guiding the dynamics of change in industrial relations. Entrepreneurs have been leading the system towards a wide-ranging deregulation and decentralisation, potentially heralding an epoch-making change in the existing system of relations.

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