How to Sit on Two Sides of the Table? Swedish and Norwegian Unions' Approaches to Representative Worker Participation during the 20th Century

By Sass, Katharina | Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies, December 2014 | Go to article overview

How to Sit on Two Sides of the Table? Swedish and Norwegian Unions' Approaches to Representative Worker Participation during the 20th Century


Sass, Katharina, Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies


Introduction

Labor unions played a crucial role throughout the 20th century in all Scandinavian countries. They organized such large parts of the population that their impact on society, economy, and politics was immense, especially compared with other European countries (cf. Heiret et al., 2003; Korpi, 1978; Streeck & Hassel, 2003). Even though union density has somewhat declined in recent decades, it is safe to assume that the study of labor unions still is key to understanding Nordic societies (Nergaard, 2010). However, recent developments in Nordic industrial relations should be analyzed with history in mind. How did labor unions in the Nordic countries manage to achieve what they did? How did they deal with organizational challenges and contradictions? Which strategies and institutions did they develop in order to safeguard their internal unity and their political and market power? By studying questions like these, we become sensitive to the embodied history in existing labor unions, which again helps us to study the challenges they face at present.

Today, participation through works councils and board-level representatives is reserved for union members and federations in Sweden, while in Norway all employees in the covered companies have the right to elect representatives for these bodies (Justis-og beredskapsdepartementet, 1997a, 1997b, 2011; LO, 2013; Svensk Författningssamling, 2011, 2013). To trace this organizational difference between closely related labor movements back in time, to contextualize union strategies, and to highlight similarities and differences is the main aim of this article. A comparative-historical approach is chosen to illuminate how Swedish and Norwegian unions dealt with organizational challenges connected to worker participation from the period of their formation until approximately the 1970s. In addition, possible causal relations will be discussed, which might partly explain the discovered difference. The main emphasis is on the time periods after the First World War (WWI) and the Second World War (WWII) and the 1960s/1970s, because these were periods in which important debates and legal changes took place.

Since then, organizational challenges related to worker participation have not diminished, rather the contrary. Despite rising levels of education, promises of individual emancipation, good work, democratic rights, and a good life for all are undermined by capitalism's logic of profit, which, despite new management concepts and less authoritative business structures, is still in operation. The current international crisis illustrates this well, and it also shows why the question of worker participation has remained upto-date (cf. Meine et al., 2011).

But both old and new forms of worker participation present challenges for the unions (cf. Dörre, 2002; Demirovic^, 2007; Streeck, 1979). For even if one believes in principle in the merit of democratic mechanisms within capitalist enterprises, it is still not clear what these mechanisms should look like. Who should be involved in decisionmaking and at what level? What effects does it have for unions, when workers come to "sit on both sides of the table"? How to make sure that worker participation in single businesses does not lead to fiercer competition between groups of wage earners, but contributes to broad social solidarity? How to make sure that strong groups would not take advantage of their position without taking weaker groups into account, thereby threatening the organizations' unity? These questions are as old as the labor movement itself. It is therefore highly valuable to study unions' approaches to worker participation over time.

The article is structured as follows: First, some central theoretical perspectives on worker participation will be presented. Second, the comparative approach and methodological base of the article will be explained. Next, the historical evidence on unions' attitudes toward worker participation will be summarized for the three periods under consideration. …

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