The Foundations of Social Partnership

Published date01 June 2016
Date01 June 2016
British Journal of Industrial Relations doi: 10.1111/bjir.12151
54:2 June 2016 0007–1080 pp. 334–357
The Foundations of Social Partnership
Martin Behrens and Markus Helfen
‘Social partnership’ between capital and labour is a distinctive characteristic
of German industrial relations. Based on a survey of 142 German employers’
associations, we investigate dierences in their support for partnership with
unions. Wefind that organizational characteristics (e.g.membership density) as
well as positive experienceswith their union counterparts explain why employers’
associations adhere to the norms of social partnership. Building on an analysis
that combines political and organizational institutionalism, we find that the
positive evaluation of social partnership held by employers is associated with
their positive experiences in more recent interactions with unions in collective
bargaining, a more encompassing definition of an association’s policy domain
and a long-term history of mutual collaboration.
1. Introduction
This article examines why employers support the philosophy and practice of
social partnership — cooperative relations with trade unions — in Germany.
We extend institutional theory in industrial relations by elaborating and
testing the role of normative forces in explaining employers’ orientations
towards social partnership (Ruef and Scott 1998). Earlier work has often
treated regulatory institutions, exemplified by legal sanctions, as constraints
on the strategic choices of labour market and industrial relations actors.
We start from the premise that the jointly (re-)produced norms of social
partnership provide considerable legitimacy to collective labour standards
(Suchman 1995). Many authors have argued that this perspective is of
particular importance in the analysis of German labour relations because
social partnership orientations provide the normative glue that sustains
mutual acceptance between collective actors (Haipeter 2012; K¨
adtler 2012;
Tullius and Wolf 2012). In this sense,social partnership can be conceptualized
as a form of normative commitment with economic repercussions.
Martin Behrens is at WSI/Hans-B¨
ockler-Foundation and Markus Helfen is at the School of
Business & Economics, FreieUniversit ¨
at Berlin.
2015 John Wiley& Sons Ltd/London School of Economics. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd,
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The Foundations of Social Partnership 335
We also provide new insights into the mechanisms and vehicles
exerting normative-institutional pressure on (business) organizations, by
demonstrating how behaviours are collectively deemed as appropriate and
legitimized within structured fields (DiMaggio and Powell 1983). Our unit
of analysis is employers’ associations, an often neglected type of field-level
governing body. Professions and professional associations, state certification
bodies or similar standard-setting entities are usually treated as field-level
governance units that define access rules, spread norms and uphold other
standards necessary for structuring fields (e.g. Fligstein and McAdam
2011; Suddaby and Hinings 2002). However, meta-organizations, that is,
organizations comprised of other organizations (Ahrne and Brunsson 2005),
and employers’ associations in particular, have rarely been examined in
studies of field-level governance (for one exception, see Campbell 2004).
Our perspective draws together separate ideas about normative forces
and employers’ associations as organizational vehicles of social partnership
orientations to examine the legitimacy and practice of social partnership
in German industrial relations. Fundamentally, we seek to identify why
German employers’ associations support or reject social partnership. In
Section 2, we derive our hypotheses by synthesizing economic and cultural-
ideological arguments in institutional theory. Further, we focus on employers’
associations as ‘ideational brokers’central to structuring the field of Ger man
industrial relations, thereby going beyond earlier accounts that pre-suppose
normative integration, general legitimacy of taken-for-granted rules, at the
societal or state level (Campbell 2004: 105).
Specifically, we examine the eect of organizational characteristics and
interaction characteristics on the social partnership orientations of employer
associations. In Section 3, we present the findings of cross-sectional
multivariateanalysis that allows for a quantitativeexploration of associations’
support for social partnership by using a qualitativeresponse variable.Section
4 concludes by discussing the implications of our findings for the future of
German collective labour-management relations.
2. Employers’ associations and social partnership
Germany has long served as a quasi-paradigmatic case within the literature
on ‘Varieties of Capitalism’ (VoCs) and has been used as a proxy for a group
of countries labelled ‘Coordinated Market Economies’ (CMEs; see Crouch
2009; Hall and Gingerich 2009; Hall and Soskice 2001). As key institutions
distinguishing CMEs from ‘Liberal Market Economies’ (LMEs), scholars
have identified industrial relations in general and industry-level collective
bargaining between trade unions and employer associations in particular
(Hall and Soskice 2001: 24). These are, of course, the same institutions that
— much earlier — had been identified as key elements of the so-called
‘German model’ (Markovits 1986; Streeck 1987; Thelen 1991; Turner 1991,
1998). What enablesGer man firms to employproduction strategies which are
2015 John Wiley& Sons Ltd/London School of Economics.

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