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.