Summary of PhD thesis, The union movement and sustainability
This thesis studies the opportunities and challenges presented to the union movement by the sustainability discourse, seen in the light of the current trend within the business community, where an increasing number of companies are using the theme of sustainability as the nucleus for the conceptualisation of development strategies. The tendency is linked to general social awareness concerning the negative effects of production on the environment and living conditions, an area that also challenges the loyalty of the union movement vis-à-vis the conventional growth strategies of industrial culture. It is therefore possible, within the union movement, nationally and internationally, to observe tendencies involving experiments with policy and strategy development as well as practical union activities in which the norm of sustainability is the value-based nucleus. However, there is as yet a dearth of experience with, and knowledge about, the problems and opportunities which may arise when the union movement starts to orient union work towards the values of sustainability. This thesis is an attempt to contribute to this knowledge.
The thesis takes as its starting point an assumption that striving for sustainability at workplace level requires the challenge of sustainability to be highlighted as a source for the development of the quality of working life. From an action-oriented perspective, this approach contains the potential for developing employee competence, commitment and responsibility towards the development of the workplace and society itself towards greater sustainability.
The greater part of the articles and reports in this thesis are based on empirical analyses of what is known as the DBA project (På vej mod Den Bæredygtige Arbejdsplads Towards The Sustainable Workplace) and on studies of theoretical literature that have formed the basis for the analyses of the DBA project. The DBA project was initiated by LO (The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions) and supported by the EU Social Fund. It is a workplace reform and development project in which the challenges of sustainability have been used as the launch pad for workplace development, network collaboration and worker participation. A total of 15 companies participated in the project.
The general research question addressed by this thesis can therefore be formulated as follows: Which opportunities and difficulties are linked to the LO union movement as the facilitator of workplace-related reform and development projects practising a safeguarding of interests that accommodates the interest in sustainability of its members and of society in general? Reports on the study of this problem have been reported in seven publications:
The article entitled Integrerede ledelsessystemer og arbejdspladsdemokrati i et bæredygtighedsperspektiv (Integrated management systems and workplace democracy from the perspective of sustainability) discusses and analyses what the new management systems mean for worker participation in the area of the environment and occupational health and safety in companies on the basis of two case studies. The environmental, quality and occupational health and safety management systems used for empirical analysis are tools that are often used in modernisation processes currently being applied in companies sensitive to social changes. The article develops a theoretical framework concerning various forms of worker participation. On the basis of this theoretical framework, the empirical studies of the various management systems, and the practical effects associated with same, show that employees lose collective influence on initiatives in the area of the environment and occupational health and safety as a result of the reorganisation applied to worker participation when these new management systems are implemented. Finally, the article presents an outline of how shop stewards and the union movement in general can influence the new management systems in line with the social interest in sustainability demonstrated by the workers and society in general.
The article entitled Strategies for Sustainable Business and the Handling of Workers Interests Integrated Management Systems and Worker Participation contains a reinterpretation of the empirical studies from the article mentioned above, with the addition of experience from the LO DBA project. The empirical methods are interpreted within a broader theoretical framework of understanding concerning the relationship between sustainability and working life. The nature of the practice of the union movement to date with regard to sustainability is defined and discussed. The sustainability strategies of the business community and the practices associated with same are also defined and discussed as a development that includes both threats and new opportunities for the union movement, for the development of working life and for sustainability per se. The ideas behind the DBA project and its nature as a workplace reform and development project are made the object of an analysis that encompasses the methodology of the project and the working life development traditions on which it draws. The conclusion indicates that, viewed in isolation, the efforts of the business community in the context of sustainability have only limited scope as regards the facilitation of sufficient changes to accommodate societal demand for sustainability. In contrast, the article concludes on the basis of the study of the DBA project that the union movement can influence the way in which companies implement their sustainability strategies by theming the quality of the worker participation. This contributes to improving working conditions as well as containing broader perspectives for societal sustainability.
The article entitled Sustainable Work Concepts and Elements of Practice concerns itself with the consequences of the absence of the concept of work in the efforts to develop sustainable forms of production. Through an analysis of the incentives, forms of rationality and practices associated with the wave of ecological modernisation and the broader sustainability concepts within the business community, the article illustrates that the importance of the actual work performed is generally overlooked. As a result, the crucial importance of the work itself for sustainability is similarly neglected. The article argues that this work is a significant part of the reason for the lack of sustainability at present, as well being a source for future sustainability. Taking as its starting point the fact that the sustainability debate takes no position on the relationship between work and sustainability, the article presents an introductory development of a concept of sustainable work. It subsequently states the implications that will naturally follow on from the concept of sustainable work in the contexts of management practice and the union practice within the union movement. In conclusion, the article states that sustainability efforts associated with the sphere of production demand broader constellations of players committed to the idea of contributing to social sustainability by promoting active worker participation.
The article entitled Begrebet arbejde i et bæredygtighedsperspektiv (The Concept of Work from the Perspective of Sustainability) develops the theme introduced in the article mentioned above and attempts to develop a new concept framework linked to sustainable work. Here, the question of what sustainability actually has to do with work is approached from a purely theoretical angle which draws in particular on the classical ontological understanding of work, in which work is considered the most important link between people, and between people and nature. This work concept offers a theoretical-analytical framework for the understanding of the relationship between work and sustainability, and thus provides a theoretical content definition of the concept of sustainable work. Placing the work concept in an historical perspective makes it clear that the lack of connection between work and sustainability is linked to the instrumental development of work during modernity. The concept development exercise is therefore aimed at positioning the ontological understanding of living work within the current striving to create sustainability. After processing the thoughts of classical authors on the nature of work, the article reaches the conclusion that sustainable work can be conceptualised with the four following categories: the rhythmic, the unique, the culture and value creating, and the political.
The article entitled Bæredygtighed og fagpolitisk interessevaretagelse i spændingsfeltet mellem partnerskaber og social bevægelse (Sustainability and the safeguarding of union interests in the force field between partnerships and social movement) analyses the LO trade union movement as a player for social sustainability, taking as its empirical foundation the findings of the DBA project. The article develops a theoretical framework with regard to the various roles of unions e.g. business unionism, social partnership unionism and social movement unionism. With this theoretical framework of understanding as the foundations, it goes on to discuss the modernisation strategies of the trade union movement from the perspective of sustainability. The experience reaped from the DBA project as regards the problems and opportunities that may arise when trade union work is oriented towards the values of sustainability are analysed with a view to defining an alternative horizon for the renewal of the trade union movement. In conclusion, the article points towards the fact that sustainability as a normative basis for ideas and values encompasses remarkably broad opportunities for strengthening the identity and societal role of the trade union movement, and would constitute an eminently suitable basis for renewing the partnership strategy and safeguarding members interests in the (late) modern society in a democratic and relevant manner.
The report entitled En fagbevægelse for bæredygtighed Del 2: Fagpolitiske perspektiver på DBA-projektet (A trade union movement for sustainability Part 2: Trade union perspectives on the DBA project) contains the empirical analysis of this thesis of the DBA project in its entirety. In fact, this report actually formed the basis for the article mentioned above. Chapter 1 of the report develops the thematical nuclei and work questions of the analysis. Chapter 2 analyses the applicability of the concept of sustainability within the context of the DBA project. Chapter 3 contains a range of workplace examples intended to reveal opportunities for and hindrances to the local practice of sustainability efforts. Chapter 4 analyses the organising networks of the DBA project with a view to illuminating opportunities for creating working relationships on sustainability across the boundaries of various interest groups. Chapter 5 analyses the experience gained from the experimental union practice of the DBA project, including new forms of participation. The conclusions from the empirical analysis of the DBA project make clear that there are a great many difficulties linked to associating union work with the concept of sustainability. All-in-all, however, the experience reaped shows that there is no reason to jettison the concept. On the contrary, experience from the DBA project shows that there is such great potential linked to the concept of sustainability that the trade union movement would do well to plunge into the work of overcoming the difficulties that the DBA project has shown to exist. In this regard, the report indicates that the trade union movement primarily needs to establish its own understanding of the concept of sustainability from a worker perspective.
The report entitled En fagbevægelse for bæredygtighed Del 1: Et debatoplæg med ideer til en ny fagpolitisk strategi og praksis (A trade union movement for sustainability Part 1: A debate contribution with ideas for new union strategy and practice) contains a summary of the theoretical work and literature studies of the thesis presented in a more popularly communicated and discussable form. The content was chosen on the basis of a desire to include and theme a broader debate about the Danish LO trade union movement as a player for societal sustainability in relation to the DBA project. Despite its limited scope, the report nevertheless touches on many of the major questions linked to the modernisation of the trade union movement and sustainability.
The conclusion to the overriding issue studied by the thesis indicates that there are many difficulties for and challenges to the trade union movement as regards practising a safeguarding of interests that accommodates the interests in sustainability of both its members and society in general. The thesis concludes that sustainability must involve considerations of and efforts directed towards sustainable working life, but the analyses also show that the social interests linked to the need to associate the striving for sustainability with the development of the work itself are often either ignored or excluded. All-in-all, however, the thesis shows that sustainability as a normative basis for ideas and values is eminently suitable to the strengthening of the identity and societal role of the trade union movement as well as being appropriate for renewal of the partnership strategy. The analyses show that, as a facilitator of workplace-related reform and development projects, the trade union movement can create new forms of partnership and new forms of worker participation that contribute to improving the safeguarding of the interests in sustainability of both workers and society in general.