The trap of “social partnership” discourse– Some keys for reflection from Claus Offe

It occurs very often to run into the expression “social partners” in the literature on employment relations, not only in institutional texts, but more surprisingly in academic research and trade union discourse. Regardless of the different self-positioning towards social struggle, it seems very difficult to escape from a term that is deeply rooted in the pluralist tradition in which most European industrial relations systems are based. However, it should be constantly recalled that “social partners” are not to be equally considered, and that an unawares use of this terminology means assuming a concrete underlying ideology. The term “social partners” suggest that a homogeneous collective subject does exist, which faces even challenges, follows unique strategies and objectives, and receives equal treatment by institutions, thus counts with similar structural opportunities in both sides. But “employer organizations” and “trade unions” are not “perfect adversaries”: they do not have comparable roles or meanings as negotiating parties, nor similar structural opportunities to organize and represent interests.

It was suggested in some debates of the IREC 2014 that the role of employers organizations should be questioned at least by two factors linked to the organizational context: firstly, employers have the possibility to opt out from collective bargaining agreements signed by their (supposedly) representative organization in social dialogue structures (external factor); secondly, in order to attract affiliation, employer organizations invite companies to become members without requiring any obligation in terms of implementation of agreements in return (internal factor). These are just examples of an organizational flexibility that is not translatable to workers or trade unions.

But most relevant are those differences arising from class structure, and that Claus Offe (1988) points out in a very enlightening chapter devoted to the institutionalization of associations’ influence (“La institucionalización de la influencia de las asociaciones. Un atolladero de la política de la ordenación”, in Partidos políticos y nuevos movimientos sociales, Ed. Sistema, Madrid, pp.111-131). He posits that trade unions are different from other interest organizations or pressure groups, insofar they represent interests that “are not defined in advance –from outside the organization and by/within each of the members. (…) In the case of trade unions, the organization precedes the definition of interests” (p.115), understood as long-term orientations in the context of a social struggle. This is so, because isolated workers are structurally impeached to define a collective strategy. A collective identity needs thus to be previously created and materialized in a collective organization. Therefore, trade unions cannot be reduced to a mere “instrument” of labour collective interests’ representation, as they need first to constitute those collective interests,  and build a collective will and identity through an explicit political and communicational process in the organization (p.117) before and while they represent. 

Conversely, this is not a need for employers and their representative organizations, which can get organized more easily without going through such internal political processes. In Offe’s words, capital is by nature easily “addable” to determine a joint strategic will (p.116), as the interests of capital are previously defined by an economical optimization. Hence, employers’ associations can be mere instruments to represent employers’ interests. 

That is why Offe concludes that a regulation or institutional framework which does not take into account the abovementioned natural/structural unbalance between labour and capital but treats them equally, in a linear fashion, can only reproduce or even strengthen the existing unbalance (p.120) between the so called “social partners”. 

I found this marxist reflection particularly useful to explain the unbalance between “social partners’” roles and opportunities at the European level of social dialogue and in multi-level structures of employment relations, where they are too often considered equivalent pressure-groups by institutional discourse.

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# adascaliteid@ceu.hu
20 October 2014 14:44
Dear Sara,

Thank you for the post. In my opinion, many of the meanings you attribute to 'social partnership' have to do with the origin of the concept which is post-war Austria. Sozialpartnerschaft denoted that employers and trade unions were interested in co-operating with each other in order to promote economic growth and employment. Now we all know that much has changed since then. Under the influence of neoliberal thinking, employers defected from the post-war consensus and began seeing social partnership as an obstruction in the normal functioning of the economy. That the term itself survived, has to do with the path dependence of ideas.
# olena.fedyuk@strath.ac.uk
22 October 2014 16:15
Sara, I think you have a very important point of critique, i.e. the non-reflexive use of the term "social partners". Various disciplines have quite a few of those terms that instead of uncovering the nature of relations and practices, serve as an umbrella terms that blurs the specificities, inequalities and power struggles. I think the terms "culture" or "identity" can be good examples here. Not that "culture" or "identity" is not "real". Both play a very real part in many individual and collective lives. However, they are often used as an independent explanation or a variable, rather than a term to be unboxed and investigated for components and relations between them.

Just now reading Dragos's comment made me think that, maybe it would be interesting not to get rid of the term entirely, but to investigate, what new alliances are emerging from the shifting industrial and social relations among various institutions. In a sense, I am now curious to know, who is forming now social partnerships with whom? What are their (often pragmatic) interests? What uneven partnerships and at what costs are being shaped these days? I think that would reveal a great deal about the shifts mentioned in Dragos's comment, to look at "social partners" as an exercise of untangling and exposing the power relations within them.
# Anonymous
05 December 2014 15:29
December 2014 Theme 1

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