Sunday, 16 June 2013

The aftermath of strikes

In May, the Radboud University published a study on the aftermath of strikes. Some newspapers seized the opportunity to paint a rather negative picture of recent strikes in nursing homes and in the distribution centres of retail giant Albert Heijn (Ahold) – in fact, one could argue that the research was embraced by persons with an anti-union agenda.
A few things can be said about how the research has been done. The terms the researchers use to describe the norms of strikers are not always entirely neutral (‘punishment norm’, ‘intolerance’). One of their studies is a survey exclusively among members of the not so strike-prone Christian union CNV (the authors defend this with a reference to historian Sjaak van der Velden, who argues that ‘the Christian unions have been less of a brake on the strike movement than has sometimes been suggested’). Another study was done during the cleaners’ strike last year. The researchers secured the collaboration of a cleaning company and mainly got to talk to workers who didn’t participate in the strike.
Against this background, there does seem to be cause to take a critical look at the research. However, it would be a shame as well as unjust not to take the research seriously on that grounds.
In one of their publications, the researchers pose the question whether it still makes sense to study strikes, given the fact that the number of strikes has decreased substantially over the past decades. They argue it does:
[…] ITUC and ILO report alarming and increasing numbers of human rights violations, such as strike bans and strike braking norms by public authorities, unrightful dismissals, demotion, discrimination, and even harassment in Western Europe […] As a response, union spokesmen claim, global workers protest and union revitalization is growing. It is therefore important and timely to reinvigorate empirical research in workplace protest, such as strikes.

The researchers have analysed how social norms are associated with participation in strikes. The willingness to strike correlates strongly with solidarity, ‘a broadminded norm that says: let’s all fight for a common cause’. The so-called ‘punishment norm’, which represents a critical stance towards colleagues who don’t participate in a strike, shows a much weaker correlation with willingness to strike (yet this negative norm would play a key role in media reports on the research). In their conclusion, the researchers comment on the relevance of their findings for trade unions:
Our findings show that social norms among workers and union members are of great importance in mobilizing for union action and organization campaigns. They support the idea that membership activity may have great impact on mobilization efforts of the unions, and confirm the importance of bottom-up strategies in union revitalization.

One aspect that the researchers didn’t really cover is the role of employers. As indicated above, they do point out that workers’ rights are increasingly under pressure. The recent strikes in health care and in the distribution centres of Albert Heijn are a case in point: employers took an unusually tough stance and tried to play workers off against each other by reaching a deal with smaller unions.
The researchers of the Radboud University argue that strained relations after a strike can lead to loss of productivity. However, they don’t analyse which role the employers play in this: for example, what is the effect of the divide and conquer strategies adopted by retail and health care employers? This would be an interesting topic for follow-up research.

Kirsten Thommes en Agnes Akkerman (2013). De nasleep van staken: Een onderzoek naar werksfeer en productiviteit. Radbouduniversiteit.
Agnes Akkerman, Marieke J. Born en René Torenvliet (2013). Solidarity, Strikes and Scabs: How Participation Norms Affect Union Members’ Willingness to Strike. To be published in Work and Occupations (abstract).

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