Collective and individual conflicts in five European countries

Publication Date04 Oct 2011
AuthorSteve Jefferys
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Collective and individual conflicts
in five European countries
Steve Jefferys
Working Lives Research Institute, London Metropolitan University,
London, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore comparatively the relationship between the
employment relations contexts and trends in collective conflicts based at the workplace and conflicts
handled individually in employment tribunals outside the workplace.
Design/methodology/approach The paper employs an international comparative approach
comparingconflict data and employment relationsmodels in Britain, France, Italy, Portugaland Poland.
Findings – Collective disputes are at lower levels in the 2000s than in earlier periods in each of the
countries studied, while accessing employment courts appears to be as or more frequent than in the
past. In France and Italy, conflict appears to be more systematically legitimated in defence of
citizenship rights than elsewhere. Both individual and collective conflicts are more common than in
Poland and Portugal where labour regulation and employee rights appear either less effectively
enforced or, as in Britain, only weakly embedded.
Practical implications – Unions in France and Italy appear more successful in focusing media
attention on their collective conflicts, and in securing somewhat more positive state intervention than
in the other countries, while at the same time supporting individuals taking cases to the courts. In
Poland and Portugal, there are very high levels of individual employment complaints taken to the
courts, and little collective strike action, while in Britain unions find it difficult to mobilise action at
both collective and individual levels.
Social implications Unions will have to become more aware of the need to win public legitimacy
for resistance if they are to continue to be able to defend workers’ interests both collectively and
Originality/value – The paper considers whether different national institutional frameworks are
presenting similar shifts from collective-based to individual-based resistance in workplace disputes.
Keywords Conflicts, Strikes,Employment courts, Institutional frameworks,State intervention,
Labour regulation,Industrial relations, Britain,France, Italy, Portugal, Poland
Paper type Research paper
Employment conflicts over restructuring and associated collective redundancies are
affecting many European countries as privatisation and globalisation have reduced the
relative importance of the extractive, metal working and manufacturing industries that
dominated their economies and their labour movements through most of the twentieth
century. The impact of this process on people’s working lives and communities has
been massive, and unsurprisingly, it has been resisted. The research presented here
considers whether – and if so, why – different national institutional frameworks are
presenting similar shifts from collective-based to individual-based resistance[1]. The
article discusses this issue through a comparative focus upon European experiences in
quite different industrial relations systems, namely, those of the EU member states of
France, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Britain. These countries were selected for this
research since they include two countries with relatively recent experiences of major
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Employee Relations
Vol. 33 No. 6, 2011
pp. 670-687
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/01425451111174139
systemic change from quite different kinds of state-controlled economic structure s to
different forms of neo-liberalism (Portugal and Poland), along with two countries
identified with a “statist market economy” (France and Italy), and one country (Britain)
identified with a “liberal market economy” (Visser et al., 2009).
The selected countries also have quite different employment relations
arrangements. Britain has an industrial relations system rooted in voluntary
agreements between workers’ unions and their employers where, until the reforms of
the 1980s and 1990s, the law had very little to say about how industrial conflicts should
be conducted. Under conditions of full employment and union confidence conflicts
often went public quite quickly and were resolved through direct tests of strength
between the local units of capital and labour. Over the last two decades a stronger
framework of individual employment rights has been introduced, while collective
forms of representation and influence have become much weaker. Hyman (2001) sees
union ideology within Britain as largely shaped by the dual pressures of market and
class. Three of the countries (France, Italy and Portugal) have industrial relations
systems that are essentially built upon codified legal frameworks that prescribe more
or less detailed procedures for the employer-employee interface, and assume a major
role for the courts in monitoring and enforcing the law. Yet, the weight of these codes
and the role of the state in their enforcement is, nonetheless, quite different. The French
labour code has an almost continuous history dating back in conciliation to the early
nineteenth century, although a full recognition of social partnership and collective
employee rights effectively only appeared in the aftermath of May 1968. The Italian
social partner employment framework dates back to the end of the Second World War
and it too only took on real significance after the “hot autumn” of 1969. Hyman
classifies Italian union ideologies as being framed by the competing influences of
“societal integration” and class, and with some qualifications, this analysis may also be
applied to France ( Jefferys, 2003). The Portuguese social dialogue framework is even
more recent, emerging only four or five years after the 1974 democratic revolution. It
has had relatively little time to become embedded and to earn employer buy-in. Yet
while Portugal also shares the French and Italian legacies of a strong radical
(Communist or Socialist) workers’ political tradition, it has not had the time necessary
to impose anything like the same hegemony of the concept of “societal integration”.
Poland is also an “exception”, difficult to classify under existing typologies Visser
et al. (2009) simply list it as “transitional”. In the 1990s, Poland created a new legal
employment relations framework based on several elements favouring trade unionism
and social integration, but this impetus was overtaken by an economic and political
context in which the newly-independent Polish state saw its role primarily in terms of
supporting managerial prerogatives promoting the free market. The country also
shares with Portugal an important agricultural sector.
The research methodology underpinning the study involved local experts in each of
the five countries assembling existing data on recent trends in individual and collective
conflicts. We confined ourselves primarily to the decade since 1995 since it was then
that data for Poland first became available, and because our focus was on how conflict
is presently manifesting itself although a brief contrast is made with earlier periods
to enable longer-term trends to be assessed. These data were then reviewed and
contextualised in national workshops with academics, union officials, employment
lawyers, government or arms-length agency officials involved in conciliation and
Collective and

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