Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Cooperation—What Does it Really Mean?

When it comes to the practice of industrial relations, many people’s favorite word seems to be “cooperation.” During a union representation election in Tennessee, a Volkswagen executive bragged that “The Volkswagen Group is proud of its record of cooperation and co-determination between employees, management and the communities in which we live and work…it is a business model that helped to make Volkswagen the second largest car company in the world” and further indicated a desire for an American works council so that Volkswagen “would be able to work cooperatively with our employees.”  In Australia, conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently said “our government believes in cooperative workplaces” and called for “a fresh look at how the system is operating” to remove barriers to cooperation. Last year, a leader of the Australian Workers’ Union argued that “Australia’s national interest is best pursued through cooperation between labour and management.” The International Labour Organization’s SCORE training process to improve productivity and working conditions in small and medium enterprises in the Global South starts with “Module 1: Workplace Cooperation – A Foundation for Business Success.”

But what does “cooperation” really mean? Unfortunately, it is rarely defined, which is a problem given that not everyone has the same thing in mind when using the term. So Mark Bray, Johanna Macneil, and I decided to confront this head on and carefully look at the different meanings of cooperation. We start by defining cooperation as “working together to the same end” while noting that this still leaves a wide range of alternative perspectives on who is working together, how they are doing so, and whose goals are being pursued. So we really need to dig deeper.

Ultimately, we think it’s necessary to identify six key alternative perspectives on workplace cooperation. Why so many? Because people have different views about how the employment relationship works rooted in alternative views about the extent to which employers and workers have conflicting interests. First, from a neoliberal market perspective comes a generic view of cooperation:
#1) A market-based perspective in which cooperation is employers and employees complying with freely-entered contractual obligations in self-interested ways. 
Note that this is not a very deep conceptualization of cooperation in that it doesn’t require much except a lack of deep-seated conflict manifested in a refusal to agree to abide by the terms of a job. In this way, it’s similar to a self-interested pluralist view of cooperation (the main difference being the pluralist respect for the legitimacy of the other side):
#2) An adversarial pluralism perspective in which cooperation is employers, employees, and their representatives pursuing their separate goals and compromising with each other in ways that respect the legitimacy of each party’s interests.
Next is perhaps what many conservative commentators envision as workplace cooperation—or what worker advocates think conservative commentators have in mind:
#3) An autocratic unitarism perspective in which cooperation is employees following managerial directives for serving organisational goals, that in turn also are assumed to benefit employees.
This is a one-sided view of cooperation, which essentially requires workers to do as they are told. So it’s not really a case of working together, and hence not a vision of true cooperation. It might not even be truly unitarist if organizational goals are not pursued in ways that also benefit workers. Indeed, this leads to the critical or radical critique that sees cooperation as disguised domination:
#4) A critical (radical) perspective in which cooperation is acquiescence by employees to employer-established goals and practices.
In these ways, we have four perspectives on cooperation that don’t actually embrace cooperation as working together. The critical perspective sees cooperation as a mechanism to control workers; neoliberalism sees cooperation as largely irrelevant because it assumes the voluntary negotiation of cooperation before workers enter the employment relationship; adversarial pluralism sees cooperation on common interests as very limited, overwhelmed by conflicting interests that need to be bargained in a largely arms-length style; and autocratic unitarism largely assumes the right of employers to direct employees and expect employee compliance.

But cooperation can actually exist in a meaningful way. In fact, we think it’s important to understand two views that can both be seen as representing a legitimate degree of working together:
#5) A consultative unitarism perspective in which cooperation is employers and employees working together on organizational goals, in ways that are established by management through consultation. 
#6) A collaborative pluralism perspective in which cooperation is employers, employees, and their representatives working together on mutual goals and compromising on conflicting goals in ways that respect the legitimacy of each party’s interests.
These views are distinguished by the extent to which management and workers share a single common interest in the attainment of organizational goals (=unitarism), or there are some conflicts of interest (=pluralism). This crucial distinction points to different variants of cooperation with different roles for labor unions and different levels of workers’ rights in decision-making. But what they have in common highlights what’s needed for genuine cooperation: the parties avoid opportunistic wins, organizational and employees interests are pursued, collaboration is not limited to short-term issues, and there are high levels of trust and information sharing. In these ways, cooperation is much more than workers simply following managerial directions without complaint.

At the same time, in contrast to many writers who reject the value of cooperation in the absence of trade unions, our framework reveals legitimate space for genuine cooperation within a unitarist frame of reference which downplays employer-employee conflicts of interest. The key, we think, is to recognize that this is not unconditionally—in other words, only particular forms of unitarist HRM truly rise to the level of cooperation (otherwise, it's more like #3) autocratic unitarism).

In closing, cooperation is advocated by politicians and policy makers of all complexions, but they bring very different meanings and assumptions about how increased cooperation will be achieved and what its consequences will be. Better recognizing the values that underlie the respective positions on cooperation will encourage more rational debate and allow policy making based on evidence rather than obscure rhetoric and opinion. In practice, greater clarity over contrasting perspectives on cooperation can lead to greater understanding among workplace actors with differing views, and can set the stage for aligning visions by reconciling frames of reference that can be roadblocks to developing and sustaining genuine cooperation. This will not be achieved by hollow rhetoric or a limited understanding of alternative perspectives.

Source: Mark Bray, John W. Budd, and Johanna Macneil (forthcoming) "The Many Meanings of Cooperation in the Employment Relationship and Their Implications," British Journal of Industrial Relations. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjir.12473. Click here to read the full paper.

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