Flexibility in practice. The case of Romanian unions during the recent crisis.

We’ve been hearing a lot in the recent years the word ‘flexibility’ in any discussion about labour market reform. We’re told that a flexible labour market is a means to return to economic growth. In contrast, current labour market regulations create ‘rigidities’ that are the source of all things evil. 

In Eastern Europe, this type of arguments dominated the public discourse during the recent crisis – the result being that probably the most radical labour market reforms have been passed in the in the last years. Particularly interesting is the case of Romania, a country where unions were believed to be relatively powerful actors by regional standards.

The labour market reforms passed in Romania in 2011 are archetypal of what flexibility means in practice:  less rights for workers.  As a recent ILO report published last year points out, the legislation passed in Romania in 2011 without s Parliamentary consultation, amounted to an unprecedented attack both on individual and collective workers’ rights. At the individual level the new legislation    extended ‘probationary periods’ so that employers can fire workers at will,  gave the right to employers to reduce working hours in certain economic circumstances,  relaxed collective dismissal requirements and increased the maximum period for fixed term contracts. At the collective level, the law made it difficult for unions to achieve representative status so they can sign collective agreements, introduced new minimum membership thresholds for forming trade unions, banned cross-sectoral collective agreements and limited the legal effects of sectoral level agreements.

The estimated impact of these measures is massive: 1.2 million employees were excluded from collective bargaining, precarious work has increased significantly and the minimum wage is lagging far behind the levels agreed in 2008. In addition, there has been a rise in anti-union positions amongst employers. Recent events from the Romanian retail sector show how employers in multinationals use the new regulations in order to ban employees from forming or joining unions. An illustrative case is that of the Auchan chain of hypermarkets where the employer refuses to recognize the union that is representing workers in a chain of supermarkets which Auchan bought last year. Moreover, the employer is banning the union from recruiting more of its employees in order to stop it from acquiring representative status at the company level.  In response, the local union began protests in supermarkets and sought the help of the UniGlobalUnion but these actions had until today no impact.

Thus, at least in the case of Romania, flexibility was a disguise for dismantling workers’ rights. The crisis was used as a pretext to bypass Parliamentary debates – a procedure that resembles authoritarian decision-making patterns.  Despite the fact that a new government came to power since the passing of these changes, there has been no real debate on labour legislation, which makes me believe that the mantra of flexibility is here to stay.

The question is: what are the union confederations doing about this? What have they done to remedy the situation? The short answer is: not much. Following a series of protests that took place in 2011 the national union confederations seem to now tacitly support the current status.  This may be be a symptom of a structural problem that the union movement in Romania is facing nowadays that is the organizational weakness and the lack of legitimacy of national union confederations.  But if this is the case, will the shop-floor presence be sufficient for keeping  unions alive?

 

 

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# mar.richea@gmail.com
05 July 2014 20:40
Our emergent Romanian ‘model of democracy’ :( Unfortunately, I’m not surprised reading that another law passed in Romania without public consultation…guys, we are “really good at doing that.” Therefore, if the ‘structural conditions’ offered by the legal framework are weak (though I think that sick it would be a better word, taking into consideration the tendency toward an authoritative decision-making style), then its applicability in empirical practice cannot be strong, or ‘in the pink of condition’.
Well, as if it wasn’t enough that at the international level ‘flexibility in practice’ is full of pesimistic scenarios, seems that at the glocalized level (Romanian case) the picture looks really horror and raising additional problems: (1) in terms of multi-level governance policy: at the regional level Romanian unions are perceived as being powerful actors - as it was stated above; and (2) at the national level: the risks for employees are flourishing, since an elementary democratic right – the right of association is violated in empirical practice and the possibility of forming trade unions by law it seems to be a science-fiction story.
Hence, it’s quite difficult to provide a possible answer to the raised question, considering the context, but a huge step forward is that the social movement spirit is picking-up, so hopefully this will be the first 'smart move' in changing the law and show the genuine face of ‘democracy in practice’ …
BUT no despair, here comes the window of opportunity for us - as researchers, to role-playing and to draw attention to ‘the pulse of social reality’ and have an active voice on agenda setting :)


# monameurer@gmail.com
09 October 2014 12:57
Mona Aranea, Oviedo University

Thank you Dragos for this interesting post. I just read it once again and remembered a book chapter I have read some time ago by Christoph Scherrer from Kassel University (see full reference below) on the issue of neoliberal policies.

Scherrer argues that the neoliberal ideology has penetrated the thinking of elites in many countries so deeply that left or labor parties once in power often implement a whole range of neoliberal policies (e.g. flexibilization of labor market as in Romania) - even though the have the political choice to consider more socially balanced policies. Sometimes national trade union leaders are sharing the same ideological stand point (market forces are better than government regulation) as they are, like all of us, influences by the dominant discourse in the political elites and the institutions of political education (universities). Scherrer explains very well how this "hegemony" of neoliberal thinking has affected for example the German government of Schroeder after 1998 and the Lula government in Brazil.

What gives hope though, is that this hegemony is contested by the non-elites, in the streets. See for example the protests last year in Brazil. So trade union leaders sometimes do not share the same vision as workers for their society. I believe our fellow ESR Clara will agree with me on that :).

Christoph Scherrer and Luciana Hachmann (2012): Can a labor-friendly government be friendly towards labor? A hegemonic analysis of Brazilian, German and South African experiences, in: Sarah Mosoetsa and Michelle Williams, Labor in the Global South, Challenges and alternatives for workers, Geneva, ILO, 141-158.
# Anonymous
05 December 2014 15:29
December 2014 Theme 1

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