Restructuring Municipal Government: Labor-Management Relations and Worker Mental Health

By McDonough, Peggy; Worts, Diana et al. | Canadian Review of Sociology, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Restructuring Municipal Government: Labor-Management Relations and Worker Mental Health


McDonough, Peggy, Worts, Diana, Fox, Bonnie, Dmitrienko, Klaudia, Canadian Review of Sociology


MAJOR STRUCTURAL SHIFTS IN THE GLOBAL economy have led to dramatic restructuring of paid workplaces and, as might be expected, researchers are finding that this is harming employee health and quality of life (Vahtera et al. 2000; Anderson-Connolly et al. 2002; Brenner, Fairris, and Ruser 2004; Bourbonnais et al. 2005). The state has not remained untouched by economic globalization, as neoliberal calls to reduce public expenditures spawn retrenchment, restructuring, and privatization at all levels (Barry, Osborne, and Rose 1996; Shields and Evans 1998; Campbell and Pedersen 2001; Jessop 2002; Hay 2004). In some jurisdictions, municipal governments have eliminated work units, amalgamated remaining units, and contracted out work to produce a smaller, more compact organizational hierarchy with compressed job ladders (Young 1996; Doogan 1997; Bach 2000; Jorgensen and Bozeman 2002; Korunka et al. 2003). Through the deployment of managerialist practices from the private sector, New Public Management (NPM) promises to make service delivery more efficient and cost effective, but its detractors suggest that NPM is yet another mode of regulating public-sector workers (Poynter 2000).

Empirical studies of health and workplace restructuring in the public sector have focused on "downsizing." Cutting the labor force has increased workloads and fostered job insecurity among the remaining employees (Ferrie et al. 2002; Ladipo and Wilkinson 2002). These working conditions are, in turn, linked to poor health (McHugh 1998; Kivimaki et al. 2001). Although fewer studies examine labor-management relations in the public service, one of the most striking findings of our own pilot interviews with municipal employees experiencing workplace restructuring was the consistency of complaints about an uncaring, unresponsive, and uncommunicative management, and a sense that this harmed workers and workplace relations. In this paper, we report the results of a mixed-method follow-up study of employees from the same municipal site, where restructuring was (and is) ongoing. We begin by outlining the context of public-sector reform, as well as the research that tells us something about the effects of these changes on working conditions and employee health. We then turn to our own study, which uses survey data to examine the association between management practices and workers' health, and interviews to better understand the nature of this relationship.

PUBLIC-SECTOR REFORM

Reform has long been a feature of the public-sector landscape in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. In the context of economic globalization and neoliberalism, its contemporary manifestation involves a fundamental rethinking of the nature of government. This rethinking means a growing reluctance of, and sometimes refusal by, the state to provide public services. While differences in contexts may create variation in the type of public-sector responses to these pressures (Tuohy 1999; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2000; Lian 2003), current changes aim to make government smaller, leaner, and more efficient.

If neoliberalism rationalizes state reform (Osborne and Gaebler 1992), NPM concretizes it by offering a management solution to the problems of globalizing capitalism (Pollitt 1993; Walsh 1995). Although it has dominated the bureaucratic reform agenda in many OECD countries since the late 1970s, NPM is a rather loose concept. Nevertheless, seven overlapping elements appear in most discussions of it: (i) greater hands-on professional management or "freedom" to manage; (ii) emphasis on explicit and measurable standards of performance in terms of services; (iii) greater emphasis on output controls by stressing results; (iv) greater disaggregation of public-sector organizations into separately managed units; (v) enhanced competition within the public sector and between the public and private sectors; (vi) use of private-sector management styles; and (vii) an emphasis on greater labor discipline and parsimony in resource use (Hood 1995). …

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