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Contemporary workplaces, dualistic labour markets and union strategies

By Andrea Bellini

@ndreabellini @airmulp


In recent years, an overall decline of industrial relations has taken place as a crisis of trade union representation, expressed by a fall in membership density and mobilization capacity. Closely related to this phenomenon, there has also been a decline in collective bargaining, expressed by a decrease, though small, of collective bargaining coverage and by a tendency to the decentralization of bargaining structures towards the company level, which implies a change in the balance of power between employers and employees. Further pressures, then, have come about from globalization processes and the financial and economic crisis.

It is a fact that the rise, mainly in the tertiary, of workplaces that fit well with the idea of flexible capitalism – low-skilled and low-paid jobs, wider use of fixed-term (and often part-time) contracts, increasing working hours and/or work pace – and that are less permeable to trade unions has contributed to weakening collective action. Shopping centres, in particular, have rapidly increased in number in the past ten years, following changes in urban planning regulations and profiting from a high productivity. As workplaces, these are characterized by a high segmentation of the workforce, with a relevant amount of vulnerable workers, who are employed in low-quality jobs and are exposed to the effects of employment (and income) discontinuity. What is more, they display a differentiation of protection, since they include a variety of businesses in terms of product sector, legal form, firm size, corporate culture and style of management which reflects, at the collective level, in the application of different industry-wide agreements and in a limited use of decentralized bargaining and, at the individual one, in a differential impact of temporary employment and working time regimes.

In this sense, a focus on "contemporary" workplaces such as shopping centres is likely to offer relevant indications from the perspective of active inclusion strategies, in particular on the role played by the actors of industrial relations in finding and implementing effective solutions in order to promote quality jobs and prevent in-work poverty.

As regards specifically working conditions, a case study conducted in Italy has brought to light the existence, within the shopping centres, of two separate “worlds of work”: on the one hand, the employees of large retail stores have short weekly hours of work and better organized shifts to cover Sunday work days; on the other hand, those of small shops work more hours both on weekdays and on Sundays and bank holidays. Nevertheless, the two worlds come together in a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with Sunday work, though this has not led to a protest and workers show a resistance to collective action and, specifically, to antagonistic forms of protest.

In this context, the role of trade unions, when based on an old-fashioned model of interest representation, is more likely to reproduce rather than combat inequalities. In effect, the case study has revealed that the employees of small shops are far less protected, since they are not covered by company bargaining and are also left out from the range of ordinary action of trade unionists and union delegates. This constitutes a dilemma for the unions themselves: whether to continue to focus their action on over-protected workers or to move towards a comprehensive model of representation. Another question concerns the common view of trade unions as collective actors pursuing mainly "defensive" strategies. Here, the analysis has revealed that workers’ dissatisfaction about extra opening days is more associated with a demand for public service facilities, which are likely to improve their quality of life, than with a claim for a reduction in opening days. A favourable area of intervention for the unions, therefore, could be that of promoting a more equitable work-life balance, through either formal or informal negotiations with the owner of the shopping centre, employers and local public authorities.

In summary, active inclusion could be seen as a relevant dimension to be studied also at the workplace, where the actors of industrial relations and, specifically, the trade unions, might experiment new organisational solutions and innovative forms of negotiation, such as site-level bargaining. Furthermore, the shopping centres can be seen as “open laboratories”, where the dualization of the labour market is a spatially delimited and visible phenomenon


A first article presenting the main findings of this research work is forthcoming as:

Bellini A., Gherardini A. (2015), Ricomporre il puzzle: la regolazione del lavoro in un centro commerciale, in Sociologia del lavoro, to be published.


About Andrea Bellini

Andrea Bellini is Ph.D in Sociology and research fellow at the University of Florence. His research interests focus on the fields of sociology of work, industrial relations, social stratification and professions. He is author of a book titled “Il puzzle dei ceti medi” (eng. trans. “The puzzle of middle classes”), recently published by Firenze University Press.

ultimo aggiornamento: 10-Set-2015
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