Dear colleagues,
it is time to start our network and I will take the responsibility of the kick off. To afford our topic means to deal with many different dimensions and application fields of the concept so I propose as our first task to set up a reasonable anthology of the participation domain.
Personally I explored the field of industrial participation, both the direct participation and the representative participation of employees in many different branches of economic activities. This field is very illuminating on the today increasing ambiguity of the term for people, like us, deeply committed to a democratic view. It is the same problem coming from the deliberative democracy debate. In principle it is difficult to object to the very idea that people, in a working environment, will have the chance to have a say on the everyday working life issues or, more generally, that people will be involved in a process to take a decision on building a bridge or a nuclear plant.
The problem is that we are living in democratic regimes that are supposed to have other ways of regulating that kind of decisions: from the role of union in labour affairs to the parliament or the city council for other affairs.
A first question comes to our minds: which relationship should exist, if any, between the “traditional representative institutions” and direct and mostly individual based schemes of “voice”?
Are them complementary ways, broadening the meaning and the practice of democracy, or competing ways?
This is not only a theoretical issue for many reasons and the field of industrial participation makes it very clear. I will use the argument I raised in the opening speech at the recent European Conference on Employees Participation, held in Rome.

Francesco Garibaldo


The opening speech:

The importance of a realistic analysis of the situation.

The background I come from is that of a tradition of realism, not in the sense of adjusting to the mainstream trends but in the original sense of a realistic analysis of the forces in play. This is the starting point of my considerations about the future of trade union in Europe.
The first item in this analysis concerns managers’ and entrepreneurs’ attitudes and culture. It is absolutely clear that they are increasingly more driven by a whole set of factors – including a cultural hegemony – to adjust to the Anglo-Saxon model of extreme competition in an almost completely globalized environment. Several underlying reasons can be identified in addition to the cultural hegemony, such as the new nature of competitive challenge between enterprises in a situation of financialization of economy. Enterprises no longer compete only to acquire a better hierarchical position on the market, but to a much greater extent, simply to survive. Some people might say that it has always been like this, but it is not true. In the past, marginal enterprises were closed down. Today, in most industrial sectors, the struggle for survival concerns the main players of the market, due to a structural excess of manufacturing capacity. Furthermore, the ambition to control industrial processes only to obtain a greater financial return prevails, thus making the situation even more unstable. Hence, a sort of “militarization” of the workforce occurs, so that workers are seen as though they were “fighters in an emergency situation” and everything is to be subject to a superior aim, which is the very survival of the enterprise.
Once this natural trend of capitalism – its animal spirit – was restrained, if ever, by laws and agreements within the framework of a strong and well regulated national sovereignty and this was especially true in Western and European parliamentary democracies.
Let’s now get to the second element in the analysis, i.e. to the changes in sovereignty. I am not with the theoreticians of the end of the Nation-State, but I agree with the arguments put forward by many geographers and by Saskia Sassen about the transformation of the government system that has been in place over the past few years and that can be briefly described as the emergence of new forms of trans and multi scalarity, i.e. a system that connects independent or partially overlapping scalar systems, linking between them different levels of different scalar systems, notwithstanding their internal hierarchy. There are, therefore, new social and economic dynamics, for example (Sassen 2003):
A focus on places allows us to unbundle globalization in terms of the multiple specialized cross-border circuits on which different types of places are located. In a later section of this lecture I will discuss the emergence of forms of globality centred on localized struggles and actors that are part of cross-border networks; this is a form of global politics that runs not through global institutions but through local ones.
And the role of the Nation-State, which is “forced” to waive its exclusive authority in its territory to allow for “globalisation”, hardly disappears at all, but rather it changes, as a result of:
the considerable institutionalizing, especially in the 1990s, of the ‘rights’ of non-national firms, the deregulation of cross-border transactions, and the growing influential power of some of the supranational organizations.
Supporting globalisation does not only mean “passively” or politically allowing it to take place but “working actively” to create the formal conditions of the process: It changes the answer to the question: Why do we have States, and what are States for?
The question is analytical and not just moral given that an interweaving is determined – a trans-scalar one – between a group, albeit modest, of agencies, departments, structures and norms of the State in strategic sectors/activities and powerful private transnational actors that yet have the power to institute a new normativity at the heart of the State.
The third element concerns Europe, including both the changes that have already occurred in the industrial system and in labour, the labour market and the labour organization.
The building process of the European Union has forced an industrial restructuring process, which is still under way and is driven by the need to achieve manufacturing standards and levels that are consistent with the global competition. Hence an extreme concentration process of key industrial sectors has taken place; concentration does not necessarily imply a greater centralization and/or verticalization, since the main governance tool of the process is mediated by finance and the new networking techniques of manufacturing processes allow a highly managerial management without necessarily an organization centralization.
The prevailing reality consists of systems with more or less strong degrees of segmentation/polarization between a few strong players and the others. And then there are the last links of the chain for which daily struggle is pure survival. Working conditions are largely dominated by the relative position in the value chain of each individual enterprise not only from the point of view of its return rates with consequent repercussions on wage levels. Actually in the new company networks leading enterprises strongly determine the operational mechanisms of subcontracting firms, apart from modular ones. The amount of quantity, the sequencing of products, delivery deadlines, quality, etc. are precisely determined by customers’ orders. The case of module suppliers is different because the degree of entrepreneurial and managerial autonomy is different and when the integration relationship has especially evolved, inter-company decision-making procedures and information exchanges do not necessarily pass through the top management thus leading to new manufacturing realities that require new corporate governance systems.
“The latter” are subject to a greater degree of precariousness. It is not necessarily a question of the employment relationship being precarious from a legal and contractual point of view, but of de facto precariousness as such. They are borderline situations with grey or hidden economy. We should become aware of the fact that in a social situation, such as the European and Italian one, traditional entrepreneurial models of pure sale of “machine-hours” can no longer exist and one should draw the relative consequences from that.
No adequate form of social regulation counterbalances such a concentration of power, which controls the fundamental structure of the European industry, including SME’s, through a whole set of complex manufacturing sectors. There is no regulation through trade unions at a European level and the only European harmonization form promoted by public authorities (working hours, maternity leave, etc.) is deregulated, in the sense that very loose criteria with a whole range of exceptions are defined to the point that every existing form of is automatically recognized. For instance, it is now possible to work 48 or even 60 hours a week, without it being regarded as a beach of the law, the which does not mean that the average working hours are so high. The aim of deregulation is to allow leading enterprises to resort to extremely differentiated schemes according to their manufacturing needs.
The ECB policy and culture stem directly from the rationale underlying its very foundation: a social regime subject to monetarist and free-trade theories, whereby the ECB has been granted a limited but actually absolute power. Finally, all the other European institutions, including the Court of Justice, are dominated by a 19th-century free-trade culture about labour. The social Europe is at the most a good intention.
Faced with such a reality, which is reflected in every national situation, does it still make sense to talk about an industrial relation system?
The industrial relation system stems from the compromise between Capital and Labour as defined in the early century and well asserted during the golden age of the 20th century. It derived from a balance of power between Capital and Labour mediated by public policies, specifically but not exclusively by welfare policies. It resisted, although weakened, during the Eighties, yet it stopped to exist during the Nineties, with the dominance of supercapitalism or casino capitalism.
It is now being replaced by a new alliance between Capital and State, whose main aim is regulating collective and individual behaviours of workers, men and women alike. Daily evidence can be found in all the European countries, without any exception. The flexsecurity model itself must still prove to be able to overcome the impending recession crisis and to extend in the most densely populated EU countries. It actually is an attempt to free companies from any social responsibility, discharging it on tax-payers to avoid any form of social deterioration.
One can object that reality is much more nuanced, rather than being black and white, which is of course true. Yet, in this case as well, an exercise of realism is required. The situations that are different from the above mentioned picture can be subdivided into two categories:
  1. The first category is the widest one and encompasses all those situations in which, due to different reasons, these levels have not yet been completely achieved – such as, for instance, the ongoing dismantling of co-determination in Germany – in spite of political and trade union resistance;
  2. The second one encompasses all those situations characterized by a different and somewhat antithetical culture, having a lesser financial purpose, and a longer term perspective in assessing investments, with a true attention to the “human capital” in terms of investment on training and working conditions, being oriented to creative and team work, etc.
These types of companies do exist in Europe, even though they are not the majority. The point is that in 90% of cases they stem from a unilateral assessment by the management concerning their “business model” that is more suited to their positioning on the market and that this kind of corporate choices do not rule out at all that other companies are used in the chain value for those parts or manufacturing and management functions that are not regarded as strategic. These situations, unlike what happened in the Seventies, no longer result from a “compromise” between Capital and Labour stemming from the industrial relation system, probably with an active role played by the public decision-maker, except for rare cases.
Last but not least: participation.
The ever more fashionable forms of “direct participation” run by the corporate management are inevitably marked by imbalances of power granted in origin. In the best case scenario, which would lead them to a deliberative democracy, they might provide workers, individually or collectively, with a decision-making power on well-defined questions related to work performance and methods. This, by itself, would already be an extremely minority condition. In most cases they are the corporate mirror of populist driver that emerge in society as a whole. Hence, they are originally marked by a corporative and anti-trade union feature, i.e. they tend to build a “corporate community” which is closed and withdrawn into itself in a fierce competition relationship.
The forms of representative participation, namely by means of bodies elected by male and female workers as union agents go though a critical phase of effectiveness. As a matter of fact, the new governance structure of manufacturing networks tends to destabilize even the corporate collective bargaining activity which increasingly more often turns into concessive bargaining. This does not depend on the greater or lesser radicality of management groups but it is related to the above mentioned pan-European capitalist reorganization model.
A general rule underlying every regulatory initiative is that its effectiveness stems from the consistency between the minimum dimension of the process to be regulated and the dimension of the minimum unit of action. For example, thinking that one could regulate traffic in the centre of an integrated metropolitan area by acting only on the central area traffic flows would be itself be totally wrong rules since the minimum unit that encompasses the determinants causing traffic in the central area traffic is represented by the metropolitan area itself.
If it is true that the governance of sector/enterprise networks features the above mentioned characteristics, then the minimum unit for trade union action/organization must be at the same level. This implies a centralization process, since the form of governance of these sector/enterprise networks is not a centralized one, but it requires an initiative concentration and networking ability.
Furthermore, participation features a limit of downward effectiveness; if, on one hand, it can no longer define a reference framework for the regulation of working conditions at corporate level, as a consequence, because of the above-mentioned reasons, the detailed regulation of working conditions (working hours, pace, etc) is no longer confined by a predefined constraint at corporate level and it is no longer a subject of negotiation at department level, since at that level, the management regards any regulatory hypothesis as its own prerogative outside the trade union bargaining. Hence, union representatives run the risk of a two-fold crisis of representation and effectiveness in their actions: they are no longer able to achieve corporate agreements that might “shape” the sub-corporate decision levels concerning the working conditions and are inhibited from taking a direct action at sub-corporate level.
The National Contract is the privileged object under attack throughout Europe. As a matter of fact, it has a redistribution effect on wages and salaries and it regulates all the main aspects pertaining the working conditions of a wide range of SME’s, thus becoming a e social constraint to the freedom to act of large capitalistic – financial corporations.
Today, the re-emergence, under the orchestration of ECB, of all the tools of income policy, with the new and explicit formulation according to which it is not an income policy but only a wage containment policy, looks like a dictatorial attempt on Labour.

Reaching public awareness of this reality.

Keeping on pretending that there is an industrial relation system in place, as well as worker participation in the decision-making process, a Social Europe, which would not be what we had inherited and that we are now dismantling, is a dangerous pretence.
Like all pretences, it would require the repression of everything that would disclose the stratagem. Not a logical repression, but a material one that would inject dangerous doses of authoritarianism into the Europe social and politic al system.
Becoming aware of such a reality would mean regaining full freedom to act by Labour towards Capital and State. Labour is not a commodity and workers, males and females alike, are not conscripts in a war of global extermination between enterprises; becoming aware of a whole set of vital needs that are independent from the market, not only those linked to income but also to creativity and to personal relations and affects, this was the starting point that gave rise to the “century of labour” back in the 19th century and this is from where we should start afresh.
Today this is not possible in the Labour cage, which is euphemistically defined as the industrial relation system. It allows no freedom to act to Labour, it does not conceive the existence of any different sphere that does not depend on the market. Hence, it is a question of rebuilding male and female workers’ social power, by unionizing it, in Europe. In this perspective, it is essential to design a cultural hegemony project that goes beyond the mere working classes; there is today a free-trade cultural hegemony on all society. A true “passive revolution” took place in the European society, as Gramsci defined it, through such a cultural hegemony. Quite another matter than participation.
A cultural hegemony is possible in different directions, starting from the very idea of production of social wealth. Indeed, there is a growing gap between the set of social needs and the provision of products conceived for an affluent individual consumption. Such a situation clashes against social and natural limits, as well as cultural and moral objections. A new hierarchy in the production of social wealth and a new working style are not the items in a Labour corporative blueprint, but the bases for its new possible cultural hegemony.
The picture that has been outlined does not rule out building elements of agreement but they will result from direct initiative.
Nor does it rule out the role to be played by corporate participation, according to forms of deliberative democracy, i.e. through moments of inclusion of all workers, women and men alike, in the analysis of a problem and in the problem-solving process. Yet, it should be matched by a strengthened representative participation based on democratic mandates. To conclude, workers’ representation at a corporate level is the very origin of the legitimacy and representation of the trade unions, rather than, vice-versa, an institution that being recognised by other institutions, is legitimated to regulate workers’ behaviour.
It is clear, in this perspective, the close relationship between the participation and democracy at large; if democracy is under retreat participation frequently becomes a “faked participation”.
Is this true in all the possible domains of participation?
The statement of a retreat of democracy under way in our societies is so clear and widely a concern today that can be argued that it is not the case of insisting on it. Contrary to this idea I do believe that we need a serious theoretical and historical analysis on the development of democratic regimes in western societies since the end of the XIX century up till today.
My point is that democracy in Western societies was mainly a positive result of the conflict between Labour and Capital starting from the mid of the XIX century; the transition from Liberal to Democratic regimes were the outcome of this struggle.
Let me quote Dewey:
The problem of achieving freedom thus found itself so infinitely enlarged and deepened that it no longer presented itself as a conflict between government and individual freedom in the facts of conscience and in the economic action, but rather as the problem of founding an entire social order, in possession of a spiritual authority, which should nourish and direct the intimate and serene lives of people.”. And so as not to leave room for any doubt he added:
[In] “Such a social structure (...) the need for a form of social organisation that should include economic activities, but that still converts them into means for developing the highest individual capacities, is new: the liberalism of the earliest times knew nothing of it.”.
Because of the specific nature of this struggle democracy was built on two very deep-seated roots:
A. A pledge – not simply a compromise – of reduction of social inequalities as the cultural and social connecting tissue, today we call it a shared vision; it was done and can be done in many different ways, through social security or trough a radical change of the working place or both;
B. shared beliefs that defined a conceptual paradigm and a material condition; these are the basic assumptions:
  1. raising worker productivity, through process rationalisation and process innovation, leads to a stable and continuous growth;
  2. growth is in itself a distributive mechanism because it leads to higher level of employment and because economic growth, as tide does, “would raise all boats”;
  3. higher employment leads to a better distributed wealth reducing social inequality;
  4. a “welfare state”, irrespective of the big differences between USA and the other western countries, combined with Keynesian types of economic stimulus can act as an anti-cyclical mechanism smoothing the necessary moment of adjustments;
  5. eventually the existence of free unions forces capitalists to redistribute a part of the productivity gains to workers through wage bargaining. It is the so called model of Big Business – Big Unionism.
My first point is that the pledge has been betrayed by an ongoing practice and ideology that consider social inequality as the natural outcome – the healthy indicator – of a market economy and that the close relationship between productivity, growth and raising living conditions for all is no more realistic since the mid seventies. This was clear to some thinkers from the beginning of the seventies: Joan Robinson, in UK, stated: we are experiencing poverty in the midst of plenty and she was talking of the second crisis of the economic theory and Minsky, in USA, was convinced that the “notion that the rising tide of private-sector-led growth combined with some supply side policies to improve workers living conditions will successfully lower poverty”, is wrong.

So we are affording the new Century in a situation in which the specific form of this crisis is a de-legitimatisation of western democratic institutions.
Western democracies do not succeed any longer in supporting the material foundations that transformed democracy from a condition for the “haves” to a condition for all; people feel their lives driven from the decisions of an elite that can strongly influence the political agenda irrespective of the specific ruling coalition; it is the lex mercatorum, in today’s words the business community consensus, what journalists, with a demure word, call the “market’s opinion”, the opposite of Imperium by Toni Negri. People experience the jobless growth and growing inequalities “in the midst of plenty”; people experience the arrogance of an unbounded capitalism willing to transform everything into a good to be sold on the market. Some capitalist and some intellectuals argue that China shows how democracy and capitalism can successfully divorce; on the other side, sections of the labour class become supporters of populist movement and sometimes of anti-migrant political movements, such as in Italy, France, Germany and Poland; sectarian conflicts are widespread all over the world, etc.. In the framework of this general crisis, the membership rate of labour unions in all Western countries is declining.