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About this book

This collection analyses new forms and expressions of conflict at work under capitalism. Using theoretical and empirical approaches, it demonstrates an underlying historical continuity to new forms and expressions of conflict at work and a path dependency by country and culture.

Table of Contents


1. Introduction — Themes, Concepts and Propositions

This collection of chapters on new forms and expressions of conflict at work came about as a result of an intermittent series of thoughts about, reflections upon and responses to reports in the popular and specialist media and discussions during teaching transnational employment relations. Continually, it seemed – if only on an anecdotal and sporadic basis – that forms of conflict about work and employment in and around the workplace were recurring and re–occurring. Yet at the same time, and most obviously with regard to the strike and its apparently declining usage, it also seemed paradoxically that workers in the developed economies of the global north were not engaging in the kind of innovations in (other) forms of tactics and weapons of collective conflict expression that might have been expected given the decline in strikes. The most obvious sectors this pertained to were those of private services where emotional and aesthetic labour have become paramount and, more generally, where the use of information technology is now central to the production, distribution and exchange of goods, services and information. The importance of emotional and aesthetic labour may be regarded as having provided a new foundation upon which worker resistance could rest – such as the smile strike. Similarly, the centrality of information technology may be considered as provided a basis for the acting out of cyber–wars against employers, if not a return to oldfashioned forms of sabotage.
Gregor Gall

2. Conflict and Contestation in the Contemporary World of Work: Theory and Perspectives

The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of the meaning of ‘conflict’ together with some tools of analysis. The word ‘conflict’ has two distinct senses, namely, underlying antagonisms or clashes of interests, and concrete actions such as strikes. This edited collection addresses primarily the latter, and our purpose here is not to rehearse theory on the former, though we do need to make one fundamental point (in the first section below). The aim, rather, is to lay out some themes in the understanding of conflict in its concrete sense and to suggest ways of tracing it back to more fundamental principles. To underline the focus on the concrete, we use the word contestation. This chapter performs five tasks. First, it defines the focus in terms of contestation. Second, it suggests one way to think about changing patterns of contestation, namely, the idea that it can have alternative forms. Third, it looks at another idea, that of shifts geographically and how we might think of these shifts in terms of the strategies of key actors. Fourth, it turns to the level of the workplace to consider some of the causal influences on patterns of contest. Finally, it illustrates these influences through the example of call centres. Tying these themes together is the idea of locating contestation in underlying causal processes within the organization of work.
Jacques Bélanger, Paul Edwards

3. A Theory of Workplace Conflict Development: From Grievances to Strikes

Relatively little is known about the complex inter–relationships between the various expressions of workplace conflict. This is an important topic because a full understanding is necessary for successful dispute resolution, to predict future developments such as form or method displacement, and perhaps most significantly, to develop conflict theory. Thus, a key purpose of this chapter is to build theory by examining the relationship between expressions of conflict. Conflict at work (or workplace conflict) has been broadly defined to include such forms as absenteeism, theft, sabotage, turnover, grievances, job actions and strikes. The most studied expressions are undoubtedly grievances and strikes but we know very little about their inter–relationship. Are they complementary or competitive? Are they alternatives or substitutes? The literature provides only anecdotal evidence of their relationship and no theory. Consequently, this chapter develops and tests, at least in an introductory fashion, a theory of workplace conflict that will provide hypotheses about expression relationships. To date scholars from various disciplines have conducted conceptual and empirical studies to address whether, and how, conflict can be managed or resolved (see, for example, De Dreu 2008, Jehn 1997, Morill et al. 2003, Wheeler 1985). But to address these issues, enquiries must be conducted into the nature of workplace conflict and its dynamics. To better understand these latter two issues, it is necessary to consider the literatures on workplace conflict from several disciplines and then integrate their findings into a comprehensive theory (Bendersky 2003, Feuille and Wheeler 1981).
Robert Hebdon, Sung Chul Noh

4. A Working Death? Contesting Life Itself in the Bio-Political Organization

Following in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis and the subsequent widespread discrediting of the neo–liberal political agenda (and perhaps capitalism itself), the meaning of work for the multitude labouring in and around the large corporations of the west has arrived at a peculiar juncture. On the one hand, there has been a massive divestment in the idea of work. Compared to yesteryear when it was one of the key icons of social good even among a militant workforce – and usually cast in very masculinist terms – today the ideology of work holds very little progressive currency or legitimacy. People avoid it when they can, mainstream movies deride it as a matter of course and even those in charge of officially sanctioning employed work only do so with a glint of irony. To quote the sentiments of one senior management consultant recently interviewed: ‘work is shit’ (Fleming 2011: 22). On the other hand, at the very moment work has truly lost its ideological shine, it has ironically become a socio–economic force par excellence, more influential now than ever, determining ever increasing aspects of our lives both in and outside the formal place of employment (to the point where even children and the unemployed find themselves obsessed with it).
Peter Fleming

5. The Re-Emergence of Workplace-Based Organization as the New Expression of Conflict in Argentina

Since the turn of the century, labour conflict in Argentina has taken on a wide and diverse range of forms and expressions influenced by economic cycles and changing political conditions. In the context of economic stagnation and unemployment surrounding the 2001 crisis, workers’ demands were framed within wider patterns of social mobilization which saw less significance attached to union–led mobilization. This was the time of road occupations by the initiative of the unemployed to demand productive employment, and of the factory occupations – the so–called ‘recovered factories’ – by which workers defended their jobs and reinvented it under workers’ control. Both processes gained worldwide resonance and have been analysed widely in the international literature (Atzeni and Ghigliani 2007, Bryer 2010, Dinerstein 2002, 2008, Grigera 2006). However, since the economic recovery of 2003 the return to more traditional labour conflicts and the revitalization of unions together with the increase of collective bargaining have taken place. This renewed strength of Argentinean unions has been explained by a combination of economic, political and institutional variables, inter alia economic and employment growth, which resulted in a steady reduction of unemployment rates (Kosacoff 2010), government emphasis in employment generation and collective bargaining (Palomino and Trajtenberg 2006), and the role given to central union confederations in tripartite bodies (Etchemendy and Collier 2007).
Maurizio Atzeni, Pablo Ghigliani

6. The Collective Expression of Workplace Grievances in Britain

As not only employer power but also its exercise in a unilateral manner have grown in Britain since the late 1970s, the independent and effective collective means for employees expressing and resolving collective grievances have declined. The starkest signs of this have been the falls in strike action, union membership and union recognition. In the 1980s, there were over 750 strikes per annum but since the early 1990s there have been less than 250 strikes per annum. Indeed, in 2009 and 2010 there were less than 100 strikes per annum and since 1989 less than 100 days were not worked per thousand workers as a result of strikes.1 Concomitantly, according to the Labour Force Survey, union membership has also declined markedly, being around 50% lower in 2010 than in 1979 and standing at 26% in 2010, with only a 14% density in the private sector. According to the Workplace Industrial Relations Survey/Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WIRS/WERS) surveys, in 1980, 64% of workplace establishments were covered by union recognition. By 2004, this had fallen to 27%. All three phenomena are indicative of a weakening of collective worker influence in the workplace. The emergence of European Works Councils, the Information and Consultation Regulations and the statutory union recognition procedure have arrived too late and their powers are too weak to alter the dimensions of decline of the independent and effective means of grievance articulation and resolution. Consequently, a‘representation gap’ for employee voice and mandate exists.
Gregor Gall, Sheila Cohen

7. New Dynamics of Industrial Conflicts in China: Causes, Expressions and Resolution Alternatives

The industrialization and marketization of the contemporary Chinese economy since the 1980s has been accompanied by a rising level of conflicts between the workers and employers in both the private and public sector. If industrial conflicts in western economies have increasingly been expressed in less radical, more indirect and more individualized forms due to their changing political and economic climate (Bamber et al. 2011, Roche and Teague 2011), then expressions of labour discontent in China are becoming bolder, more frequent and more aggressive (Chan 2001, Gries and Rosen 2004, Lee 2007, Perry and Selden 2010). For example, in the mid–2000s, rural migrant workers voted with their feet en masse in protest against exploitation. In the late 2000s, they turned to the legal channels to seek justice following the enactment of the Labour Contract Law (LCL) and the Labour Disputes Mediation and Arbitration Law (LDMAL) in 2008. In 2010, emboldened workers organized their own strikes to demand higher wages and better working conditions in foreign–funded manufacturers. The materialization of these labour rights has been aided, amongst other conditions, by tightening labour markets since the mid–2000s.
Fang Lee Cooke

8. Egyptian Workers Rediscover the Strike

For millions of people worldwide who watched the uprising against Mubarak unfold in Tahrir Square on television and through social media, it is probably the mass occupation of public squares which is the form of collective action most associated with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Yet the five years or so before the downfall of Mubarak also witnessed an equally important change in workers’ repertoire of collective action: namely, the rediscovery of the strike. This chapter argues the shift in workers’ tactics was a reflection of deeper changes in the relationship between the state, capital and labour since the mid–1970s, and had profound consequences both for the Mubarak regime and its opponents. The pivot of these changes was Anwar Sadat’s turn from the Soviet Union to the USA, which was in turn prompted by the crisis of the Nasserist experiment in import–substitution industrialization. Sadat’s policy of ‘opening’ (infitah) began a long–drawn–out process through which the Egyptian ruling class attempted to withdraw from its side of the Nasserist ‘social contract’ without triggering a major explosion of protest. By the late 1980s economic stagnation and the looming prospect of a default on loan repayments to the USA opened a period of much more aggressive liberalization and the extension of neo–liberal policies to large areas of the economy. In the Nasserist era, Egyptian workers were asked to forgo the right to strike in return for a commitment from the state to provide jobs, housing, education and healthcare through the public sector. In the period of neo–liberal reforms the state’s role in the redistribution of wealth downwards was dramatically reduced, but its repressive functions increased.
Anne Alexander

9. Direct Action in France: A New Phase in Labour-Capital Conflict

The world over, it seems, citizens of France are seen as having a strong tradition of radical class struggle. Paradoxically, it is seen as being very alive but also being very out of date. The recent radicalization of a number of local and national conflicts within France, as well as some other spectacular actions largely covered by French and international media, were taken as vestiges of the direct action strategy developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. For example, Ancelovici (2011: 132) observed: ‘Social movement scholars often associate radicalism with the use of particular modes of action. For example, Sidney Tarrow and Hanspeter Kriesi treat, respectively, the diffusion and intensification of disruption and the increasing use of violence as an indicator of radicalization. Following this logic, the growth of certain forms of labour contention since the 1990s in France could be interpreted as the sign of a renewal of labour radicalism. The “boss–nappings” of 2009 and 2010 and the blockage of oil refineries during the protests in the fall of 2010 were presented as such by the media.’ More recently action has been taken that was successfully aimed at attracting media attention, such as small farmers bringing sheep to town, or workers brandishing Lejaby lingerie during their demonstrations against redundancy – a giant patriotic brassiere in the national tricolour of red, white and blue which they had made.
Sylvie Contrepois

10. Violent Industrial Protest in Indonesia: Cultural Phenomenon or Legacy of an Authoritarian Past?

Indonesia has a long history of violent industrial conflict involving rioting and wide–scale destruction of property, in addition – and sometimes as an alternative – to more orthodox strike actions. Violent actions taken by wage labourers on the plantations as a form of protest against their employers were recorded in the archipelago in the nineteenth century (Stoler 1985, 1995). Episodes of violent industrial protest continued through the twentieth century, but were particularly common in industrial areas in the late 1980s and 1990s, at a time when independent labour organizing was forbidden under the punitive labour relations regime implemented by Suharto’s authoritarian New Order (1967–1998). Despite dramatic changes to the industrial relations system, including significant improvements in collective bargaining structures and in workers’ access to the freedom to organize, industrial violence continues to have a place in the repertoires of action of waged labour in contemporary Indonesia.
Michele Ford

11. Conflicts at Work in Poland’s New Capitalism: Worker Resistance in a Flexible Work Regime

This chapter explores the dynamics and emerging dimensions of conflicts at work in one of the new capitalist economies of Central and Eastern Europe, namely Poland. Critical labour studies in the first decade of transformation have focused upon the weakness of organized labour as the result of neo–liberal transformation and the legacies of communist and postcommunist unionism (Crowley 2004, Ost 2005, Bohle and Greskovits 2006). However, as demonstrated by a number of studies (Hardy 2009, Hardy and Kozek 2011, Meardi 2000), the general assertion of union passivity does not fully capture the reality of conflict at work in the course of capitalist neo–liberal transformation. First, it is based on the analysis of union–led, organized forms of worker resistance (such as strikes and collective disputes) and underplays other forms of conflict at work, including the various types of misbehaviour and dissent in the workplace (Collinson and Ackroyd 2006). Second, the assertion about the durability of cultural and structural factors impeding worker resistance makes it difficult to explain the emergence of new conflicts at work by the end of the 2000s. The latter involved the rapid growth of strike levels in 2007–2008 and the development of a more assertive labour unionism in the public sector and some multinational companies (Hardy and Kozek 2011, Meardi 2007a).
Adam Mrozowicki, Małgorzata Maciejewska

12. Minjung Tactics in a Post-Minjung Era? The Survival of Self-Immolation and Traumatic Forms of Labour Protest in South Korea

In November 1970, 22–year–old labour activist and garment worker Chun Tae–Il committed an act of self–immolation that catalysed the contemporary democratic labour movement in South Korea. Chun worked in the garment sweatshops of the Dongdaemun Market, an area populated with hundreds of garment shops employing mostly young female workers in their teens and early twenties. The labour conditions in the sweatshops where Chun worked were brutal, with workers crowded into ‘attics’ – vertically subdivided floors where sewing machines were double stacked over one another, full of cloth fibres and poorly ventilated. Workers in these sweatshops suffered from overwork and occupational illnesses. Many were fed amphetamines and continuously worked extralong shifts when product orders were at their peak, or were summarily laid off when they were not (Chun 2003). Chun and his friends who worked in these export factories were shocked at the disparity between the principles enshrined in Korea’s labour standards act and the actual practice of employers in these primarily export–oriented sweatshops. They tried in vain to address these conditions through a variety of means, including protesting to their employers and trying to form a union, all of which failed for under the military dictatorship the employers and the police easily repressed labour protest.
Jamie Doucette

13. Striking Out in America: Is There an Alternative to the Strike?

‘The strike is the essence of collective labour activity’, wrote former Clinton National Labour Relation Board recess appointee and legal scholar, Craig Becker (1994: 351). The National Labour Relation Act (NLRA) of 1935, which established the legal basis of collective bargaining for most of the private sector in the US, unequivocally guaranteed the right to strike. Furthermore, Becker notes the Supreme Court, as late as 1963, argued that the NLRA had upheld a system of collective bargaining ‘with the right to strike at its core’. Yet, beginning in the 1980s, the use of the strike has declined from year to year. The number of strikes has fallen from an average of over 5,000 a year in the 1970s to an annual average of fewer than 300 in the 2000s (see Table 13.1). How could such a huge decline in the use of labour’s ‘only true weapon’ (Logan 2008: 171) be explained? Were there alternative forms of industrial action that workers and their unions could deploy to pressure employers in the process of collective bargaining?
Kim Moody


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