Reconfigured arenas in times of the Covid 19 pandemic?

Challenges and opportunities for acts of workers solidarity.

A person with headphones uses a laptop.

Author: Marcus Franke

The Covid 19 pandemic as a global health phenomenon covered the whole world more or less at the same time. It is yet another occurrence in our globalized world that shows that responses have to be more than on a national level. Instead, this crisis had to be addressed from a multilevel perspective as seen in the European industrials relations – as one example. From this perspective, the current ETUI Report “Benchmarking Working Europe” emphasizes social inequalities across European member states by perceiving this pandemic not only as a health crisis, but particularly having an impact on the labor relations as the world’s governments shut down a big part of the working world.

At the beginning of 2022, we have first insights about the impact of this crisis on the working world. For example, the ETUI Report reflects: “Workers in low-paid jobs have often been unable to shield themselves from infection, either because their work was considered essential and they were unable to shelter at home or because they could not afford not to go to work.” (p. 19)

As our project is looking for places and motives of transnational solidarity, likewise the Covid 19 crisis in general was framed as a need for solidarity to get through this time. Therefore, the effects of the crisis represent a valuable angle on our research focus on transnational solidarity.


Solidarity in times of Covid 19 impacting the world. A chance for labor relations?

Meanwhile nearly two years into the pandemic, it has already become clear that workers got threatened in their existence when the governments were forced to shut down whole sectors of work. Solidarity for that matter was to minimize social contacts, which meant private isolation as well as for the companies to provide health and safety measures appropriate to the pandemic situation. A main part of this reaction was the amplification of the digitalization of work. Digitalization, next to work life balance and gender equality, is one of our research focuses which we will scrutinize more in-depth in order to outline the impact of the crisis on this accelerated development.

One central aspect of digitalization from the workers perspective is the possibility for remote work which was forced widely, involving opportunities as well as hurdles for the employees. For example, working remotely is not sufficiently regulated for many matters like additional costs or even the employers providing the basic office equipment. Another hurdle is the more burdened situation especially for parents with caretaker obligations that crosses with the working life even more in cases of remote work and often affects women stronger. This is contrasted by the opportunity of employees to have a more self-determined way of working by being able to work from home. This can be a significant advantage for the individual work-life balance as commuters save time by not having to travel to the office every day or employees in general can organize their day more freely. Overall, remote work will be an interesting subject to research as it was an immediate need in matters of health and safety for the workers, but also an already ongoing process in the context of transformation.

This sample of already existing contradictory circumstances around remote work takes up a pre-crisis development that got accelerated in order to manage the crisis, but there is no doubt it will remain in an increased form beyond the crisis. Picking up those developments, one of the main questions for our research regarding the impact of the pandemic is, whether the development of transnational solidarity is accelerated as well? Therefore, it will be particularly interesting to see, which kind of effects have been noticed within the social dialogue and its actors of the multilevel dimensions of European working relations and the European Union.

Hand sanitiser dispenser in the library's entrance hall.

Sectoral Social Dialogues as (re-)emerging arena of transnational solidarity?

One specific part of this dialogue, the Sectoral Social Dialogue, seems to have a renaissance due to the pandemic. According to the ETUI, the number of Sectoral Social Dialogues has increased particularly at the beginning of the crisis (Degryse 2021). This is contradictory to the financial crisis starting almost 10 years earlier, where research proved a decrease in Sectoral Social Dialogues (e.g. Degryse, ETUI Working 2015.2). Adding this to our research focus on transnational solidarity, we will scrutinize how Sectoral Social Dialogues are embedded in the crisis management.

It appears that the pre-crisis more important dialogues on the company level are not playing the same role in the current management of the crisis. Therefore, we will analyze whether these Multinational Companies (MNC) with a past of Transnational Company Agreements (TCA) have changed their approach, how European Works Councils are embedded in the crisis management and if there are motives of solidarity as a constant. The earlier inclusion of the employee perspective into the company’s policies may indicate that, despite a different approach now, the Sectoral Social Dialogues have increasingly gained meaning as a place of solidarity. Therefore, the differences in the relevance of social dialogues as an arena of the current crisis management compared with the financial crisis could provide essential information about the progress of social dialogues in matter of representation and recognition of topics of solidarity.  

In this crisis impacted situation agreements on the company level could still show that MNCs that maintain ongoing cooperation with workers' representatives are more willing to include the workers perspective and therefore recognizing worker’s hurdles. Furthermore, MNCs involved in TCAs represent a disposition for agreements beyond their legal obligations which could indicate that the agreements content could be more likely to include topics of solidarity.

This current development leads us to research the progression up to the pandemic crisis as well as the differences revealing with this crisis. Our first hypothesis is that in the pre-crisis situation, social dialogue has increasingly shifted to the company level and this has been fostered by European labor law as well as institutionalized involvement. However, this progress does not seem to continue through the crisis in the same way. Therefore, a second hypothesis on the differences in the crisis is put forward, assuming that Sectoral Social Dialogues reemerge in relation to the concrete consequences of the crisis because different sectors were impacted in various ways. This leads to a resurgence of social dialogues under Article 154/155 TFEU representing a direct connection to the crucial political dimension with the possibility of exerting influence. This does not mean dialogues at the company level have lost their importance as a result of the crisis, rather than representing different kind of functions in this process. We expect that both instruments will take an active role and bargaining might increase on multiple levels. In our interviews with experts in the field of transnational labor relations, we will scrutinize these hypotheses particularly towards opportunities to act in solidarity. The renaissance of Sectoral Social Dialogues combined with bargaining at the company level could mean the implementation of new actors in ongoing processes and therefore better chances for the recognition and implementation of worker’s rights. In terms of this reconfiguration of arenas, it will be interesting to zoom into specific examples such as remote work to see how the agreements from the beginning of the crisis will be carried over to the post-crisis period.


A transnational challenge needs a transnational research perspective

The transnational focus of our research will complement the current research that focusses mainly on the national level due to the fact that the impact of the pandemic crisis is handled primarily by national governments. Our research will provide important insights about the pandemic crisis’ impact on the development of transnational labor relations in general and especially regarding the significance of places and motives of transnational solidarity.

However, the global impact of the Covid crisis demands a look not only beyond national borders, but specifically on transnational relations between the non-governmental and governmental/supranational actors of the labor world. In a time where everybody emphasizes solidarity as the cure of the crisis, it will be important to look at the impact of the crisis on places and motives of solidarity. Moreover, it has to be examined which transnational answers are already on the way and which have to be fostered to get a chance to channel the impact of the crisis towards a progressive development rather than the crisis amplifying already existing problems for the workers.

We will keep you informed about our research progress on this blog and we will share specific topics in upcoming blog posts like a comparison of the current crisis with the financial crisis, the normative dimension of solidarity or the presumed renaissance of the Sectoral Social Dialogues. Already in October 2021, we have organized our workshop “Assessing solidarity” where we have discussed the transnational dimension of solidarity theoretically. As a follow up to our workshop, we present two blog posts from Sophie Rosenbohm and Andreas Bieler on this blog. The article by Sophie Rosenbohm is dedicated to the topic of solidarity in MNCs regarding the actor’s constellation. And the article by Andreas Bieler focusses on a similar question, when and where workers solidarity occurs but looking at the EU multilevel system in his case.