Paths to Transnational Solidarity

Identity-Building Processes in European Works Councils

by Hermann Kotthoff (Author) Michael Whittall (Author)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 275 Pages


With national industrial relations systems struggling to keep apace with the global and mobile nature of capital, the emergence of the European works council has caught the imagination of both practitioners and scholars of this institution in the last two decades. European works councils find themselves at the centre of an ever emerging European industrial relations landscape, offering employees of multinationals within the European Economic Area the opportunity to work together in regulating employment conditions. An in-depth empirical study of five European works councils, this book offers a unique look into factors which promote and hinder the development of solidarity amongst employees. With a sociological bent, this volume is a must for EWC delegates struggling to deal with geographical, cultural and historical factors that undermine relations between them.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Summary of main results
  • Chapter 3: Methodology and structure of the report
  • 3.1 Methodology
  • 3.2 Structure of the report
  • Chapter 4: Transnational patterns of EWC solidarity: Case studies
  • 4.1 The EWC as a working team in dialogue with management. Solidarity as workplace citizenship
  • 4.1.1 Operational and organizational structure
  • 4.1.2 Structure and development of the EWC
  • 4.1.3 Scope and effectiveness of the EWC
  • 4.1.4 Relationships between EWC and management: the new spirit
  • 4.1.5 The steering committee from within: the protagonists in action
  • 4.1.6 What is solidarity?
  • 4.1.7 The EWC and local/national employee representatives
  • 4.1.8 Trade union federations and the EWC
  • 4.1.9 Summary
  • 4.2 EWC Integration with Codetermination at a German head office. Subsidiary solidarity
  • 4.2.1 Operational and industrial relations background
  • 4.2.2 Structure and development of the EWC
  • 4.2.3 Activities and representative efficiency of the EWC
  • 4.2.4 Relationship between the EWC and management
  • 4.2.5 The EWC and the steering committee: the protagonists in action
  • 4.2.6 Differences between the EWCs at Ford and General Motors
  • 4.2.7 Summary
  • 4.3 Protest solidarity: The advance of the Southern European model of representation in the EWC of a German company. ‘Protest solidarity’ vs ‘Participation solidarity’
  • 4.3.1 Business and organizational structure
  • 4.3.2 Structure and development of the EWC
  • 4.3.3 Scope and effectiveness of the EWC
  • 4.3.4 Relationship between the EWC and management
  • 4.3.5 The steering committee: the protagonists in action
  • 4.3.6 Summary
  • 4.4 The EWC as information analyst. Solidarity as a gesture of sympathy
  • 4.4.1 The company
  • 4.4.2 Structure and development of the EWC
  • 4.4.3 Scope and representative effectiveness of the EWC
  • 4.4.4 Relationship between EWC and central management
  • 4.4.5 The Steering Committee: The protagonists in action
  • 4.4.6 Summary
  • Chapter 5: Comparing patterns of solidarity: Varieties of constellations for interest representation
  • Chapter 6: EWC and Trade Union Relations
  • 6.1 A complicated but necessary arrangement?
  • 6.2 Case studies – trade union presence
  • 6.3 Analysing the trade union presence
  • 6.3.1 Trade union presence and management control
  • 6.3.2 What explains trade unions’ lack of involvement in EWCs?
  • 6.4 Encroachment – Micro-corporatism
  • 6.5 Summary
  • Chapter 7: Conclusion
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Preface

Previous research into European Works Councils (EWC) has principally concerned itself with the functioning and outputs of this new representative institution. One of the main outcomes has been the sober realization that in many instances EWCs have not, in practice, succeeded in becoming collective actors with a capacity to generate unique outputs as their members have not managed to form a cohesive group with a European perspective that can be brought to bear on this area of activity.

This central focus of this study is the process through which an EWC becomes able to emerge as an actor: that is, how a set of strangers can cohere into a cooperative team able to offer mutual support and with the capacity to engage in the common European task of company-level interest representation. It is based on five companies selected on the ground that they exemplified best practice. We then explored and analysed the conditions for the possibility of transnational solidaristic behaviour in a series of case studies. The research took place during 2009 and 2010. In 2012 the results were fed back to the EWCs concerned and discussed with them.

We are grateful to the Hans Böckler Foundation, which financed the research project originally submitted by Hermann Kotthoff and which provided us with the opportunity to pursue the question of the conditions for the constitution of EWC in a direct and concentrated fashion. We are also grateful to the project’s advisory board for their support in our project of making ‘soft facts’ hard.

Our method of intensive interviews and participant observation necessitated acquiring a high degree of familiarity with the internal worlds and histories of the EWCs that we studied. We are very grateful to these EWCs for their openness in this respect. In particular we would like to thank EWC chairs and steering committee members as well as the representatives of national and European trade union confederations for granting us extremely informative interviews.

← vii | viii → We would also like to thank Frau Zöller-Wolff for transcribing those interviews conducted in languages other than German, and Frau Amelot for the German-language transcriptions.

As authors we came together through our common interest in developing an approach that is centred on theorising solidarity and identity in a way that can be summarized, drawing on Richard Hyman, as follows: ‘We are shaped by our experiences, immediate milieu, and specific patterns of social relations’.

The empirical work for the study was conducted jointly by the authors. Michael Whittall wrote Chapter 6, on trade unions. The other chapters were written by Hermann Kotthoff.

Hermann Kotthoff
Michael Whittall
Saarbrücken and Munich, October 2013

← viii | 1 → CHAPTER 1


This study follows on from earlier work by one of the present authors that looked at the first decade of the development of European Works Councils (EWC) following the adoption of the European Works Council Directive in 1994 (Kotthoff, 2006a). This research noted a high degree of variability both in the forms of EWC activity and in EWCs’ effectiveness as an instrument for employee interest representation. Five types of EWC were proposed.1 Although a small minority of EWCs were found to have approached the standard of representation characteristic of German works councils, a much larger proportion proved to be either relatively inactive or were only symbolic in nature. A similar degree of variation has also been identified by other researchers (Lecher et al., 1999; Marginson et al., 2004; Weiler, 2006). Where there was a low level of effectiveness, this was not primarily a function of the modest scope provided by the EWC Directive and nor was it principally attributable to management resistance. Rather, the main factor was seen to lie in the fact that different national contingents had little sense of mutual dependence and only a limited notion of what value a transnational representative body might offer. There was often little cross-national communication between country contingents and only a meagre awareness of any obligation to provide mutual support. They were, and remained, largely alien to each other. Precisely the converse was the case in those few EWCs that had attained a substantive degree of effectiveness. As a consequence, one of the central conclusions of the study was that ← 1 | 2 → differences between EWCs could be explained in terms of the cognitive preconditions, specifically in the field of social morality, that prevailed within these forums, and in particular the degree of ‘felt interdependence’ (Kotthoff, 2007) and progress in overcoming ‘otherness’.

As yet, exploring these preconditions has not played a central role in EWC research. This raises the very question that the present study aims to answer. Namely, what preconditions need to be met to enable EWC members to develop a sense of mutual transnational interdependence, recognize their common interests, cooperate with each other on the basis of solidarity to pursue these interests, and identify with the EWC as an institution that is acknowledged by all? How successfully can they manage the challenge of balancing national and supra-national solidarity? Michael Whittall (2007: 10) also posed this very same question at around the same time: ‘Can they establish solidarity links with colleagues from other European countries in a fashion similar to the one they are used to within local and national settings?’

The central concern in this study is, therefore, to elaborate and develop a research perspective that engages with the prerequisites for effective representation at the European company level in terms of the consciousness of the actors. This distinguishes our approach from the focus of much previous work that has been predominantly concerned with measuring outputs, conceptualised in terms of the results of EWC activity. In our view, we now need to look inwards, as it were, and consider the emotional, social and cultural determinants and conditions of the possibility of any such positive output.

Both the legal construction of the EWC Directive, as well as EWC research, have operated on the assumption that the EWC, as an actor willing and able to think and act in European terms, already exists as a finished entity. In practice, however, EWCs do not spring into existence fully formed. We therefore need to consider the process through which they emerge. This raises a number of further, and fresh, questions. How is the capacity to act constructed and organized? How much social integration is necessary for this? How do EWC members from different countries understand and interpret common interests and objectives? How do they respond to the national styles and habitus of workplace representatives from ← 2 | 3 → other countries? What constitute legitimate forms of interaction with top management? How do they see themselves, and how do they see others? How do roles become differentiated during the process of group formation? How are internal dominance, authority and professionalism dealt with? Are there selective solidarities, in which internal coalitions emerge that run across the lines of national delegations? Who are the true driving forces and promoters of the process through which the EWC is formed?

On the issue of the question of the structural factors that operate at the level of the EWC as an actor, EWC research has focused on the characteristics of industrial relations systems, and in particular the ‘home-country effect’, under which the industrial relations regime at a company’s national base exercises a profound influence both on its EWC’s internal structure and relationships to management and trade unions. A branch effect has also been noted. In contrast, mainstream EWC research has tended to devote less attention to the organizational and managerial structures of individual companies, and in particular the degree of centralization or decentralization – factors that arguably would have a direct impact on the interdependence of local operations. The principal exceptions to this are Marginson et al. (2004) and Kotthoff (2006a). Both these studies suggest that the minority of EWCs found to exhibit a high level of representative effectiveness are mainly located in companies with highly internationalized organizational and managerial structures centralized at the European level. Such ‘Eurocompanies’ are characterized by a distinct and centralized European-level of management, integrated and interconnected production operations (such as a platform strategy in the car industry), a unified sales and distribution system, and a centralized approach to rationalization. All these factors exercise a major influence on the ‘objective’ interdependence of local operations, and with that on the employment conditions of their workforces.

In contrast to Marginson et al. and Kotthoff, who view organizational structure as one factor among several within the context of an overall industrial relations approach, Hauser-Ditz et al. (2010) adopted a strategy of isolating the structural element and, in a process of critical distancing from an industrial relations approach, grounded their study on the assumption of a direct correspondence (‘organizational fit’) between types of ← 3 | 4 → EWC and organizational types, derived from the typology of international enterprises originated by Bartlett and Ghoshal (1989). EWCs are also categorized using the Bartlett and Ghoshal framework (‘multinational’, ‘focal’, ‘global’, ‘transnational’) and EWC activity then represents a facsimile of the international organizational structure of the corresponding company (structural determinism), although this relationship could only be confirmed in some of the case studies researched by the group (Hauser-Ditz et al., 2010: 384). This suggests that objective interdependence is not the same as felt interdependence: rather, it must be subjectively interpreted and socially embedded, and also be rendered culturally ‘connectable’.2

Taking as her starting point the macro-economic regulation theory of global value chains, Hürtgen (2011) also offers a similarly highly deterministic and structure-based account of EWCs, focused on the relative power distribution between country delegations and how the home-country delegations of a dominant country, based on economic strength, extend their claim to represent workforce interests from their own immediate constituency to other countries. In line with Gramsci’s notion of ‘cultural hegemony’, economic dominance is held to generate hegemony on the part of its institutions and patterns of interpretation. These two factors then constitute a regime – that is, a relatively stable and persistent formation. As far as relationships between German and Central European EWC members are concerned, Hürtgen noted that the primacy of the German element in European value chains had been undermined by the fact that Central European operations had advanced into high-tech fields, but at low wage levels, weakening the foundations of the hegemony of the German members within EWCs, at least in relationship to those from Central Europe (Hürtgen, 2011).

An alternative path to an approach anchored in cultural sociology and phenomenological perspectives has recently been elaborated by Klemm et al. (2011a and 2011b), who focus on the preconditions, in terms of the sociology of knowledge, for interest-related communication, which they graphically ← 4 | 5 → denote as ‘cultural toolboxes’. In their study, these embrace mutual patterns of interpretation (images of the self and others) and expectations of solidaristic behaviour on the part of German and Eastern European EWC members in three German automotive companies against a background of transfers of production to Eastern Europe. In this context, issues of equality in internal EWC relationships and the nature of their behavioural style (habitus) towards management are seen to play a major part. The images of the other, as ascertained through empirical research, proved to be largely characterized by mistrust and wariness. Eastern European delegates saw German EWC members as arrogant and as engaged in a suspiciously close relationship to top management, from which they drew their power. In reality, behind their ‘cheap calls for solidarity’, the Germans were seen as covertly advancing their own interests. Conversely, German delegates saw Eastern European members as ‘underdeveloped’ in terms of representation and as having no interest in forging solidarity as a means of overcoming competition over allocations of production since they did not want to sacrifice their status as ‘winners’ in the relocation game.

Klemm et al. viewed each of these mutually disappointed expectations of solidarity as representing nationally homogeneous patterns of interpretation with their origins in significant historical experiences, and in particular different industrial relations systems and routines.

This approach, which engages with patterns of interpretation and categorization, is very close to our own concern to examine those prerequisites for EWC activity that are related to the consciousness of the participants. However, the ‘images’ and knowledge that the specific parties have of each other should also be related to the actual experiences that each has had over the course of their mutual relationships. And they also need to be located in the context of the structural conditions of specific companies.

In this study, we offer a more open and pragmatic variant of the interactionist-interpretive approach. We are also interested in the ‘cultural’ preconditions for solidarity as the ‘a priori’ of mutual understanding and communication within the EWC. However, we wish to locate these within the real history of these relationships and the process of group formation, as well as the framework conditions of the company. At the same time, we do not want to isolate any theorization of the constitution of EWCs from ← 5 | 6 → the flow of activity; rather, this represents an integral part of what happens at the level of both action and outputs. In turn, this complex formation of actors is embedded in two more overarching structural contexts: firstly, in the structure of management and organization of the company; and secondly in the history and culture of human resource and personnel policies and industrial relations in the company’s home country as well as – inasmuch as we can establish this historically – between this and other European countries. We are not committed to a monocausal approach and do not, therefore, see any antithesis between an agency perspective and a structural perspective: rather, we situate actors in the context of their structurally pre-given circumstances, limits and opportunities.

The EWC literature cites a number of factors that inhibit EWCs from effective activity as representative bodies through processes of information, consultation and, possibly, negotiation. These are:


•  differences between national systems and cultures of interest representation;

•  dominance of home-country representatives within the forum, as a result of which the representatives of other countries are marginalized and demotivated;

•  competing interests between countries and operations;

•  disinclination on the part of central management to accept the EWC as a partner for dialogue;


VIII, 275
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
development employment conditions capital
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 275 pp., 7 tables

Biographical notes

Hermann Kotthoff (Author) Michael Whittall (Author)

Hermann Kotthoff is professor of industrial and organizational sociology at Technische Universität Darmstadt. He is the author of significant research literature on industrial relations (German and European Works Council), corporate culture and sociology of management. Michael Whittall has taught and researched in the area of European industrial relations for over twenty years. He is renowned for his work on European works councils, in particular the question of European identity.


Title: Paths to Transnational Solidarity