Strengthening partnership? Research analyses impact of austerity on social dialogue

Social dialogue and public services in the aftermath of the economic crisis – strengthening partnership in an age of austerity

This was a six-country research project coordinated by Professor Stephen Bach at King’s College in London. The final conference took place in February 2013 and the comparative and country reports are all available here.

The central questions that the researchers set out to answer were:

- What have been the main drivers and measures of austerity adopted in each country?
- How have these changes been implemented and to what extent has social dialogue contributed to the change process at national, sectoral and workplace level?
- How have institutions of social dialogue influenced industrial relations processes/ outcomes in the public services?

The six countries covered – Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands and UK – provided a range of examples of different traditions of and developments in social dialogue and collective bargaining in the public services.

Among the main conclusions of the research was that social dialogue had been weakened where the scale of cuts was the largest:

It is almost certainly no coincidence that in the countries in our study undertaking the largest combinations of pay and employment cuts, governments have used policies of restriction to bring about the rapid changes they seek, regardless of the impact on social dialogue and the longer term consequences for public service quality and employment standards.

In contrast, the report found that:

In Denmark, France and the Netherlands the dominant tendency is the resilience of social dialogue within local government and this has also often been combined with attempts at reconfiguration. In all these countries, a shift in power relations in the direction of employers has occurred but social dialogue institutions are resilient and the legitimacy of social partner involvement is not questioned.

While the research confirms fears about the attacks on social dialogue at national level, it found examples of different approaches at local level:

Overall, the widely expressed concern that social dialogue is being undermined because austerity measures are being formulated and implemented without recourse to the social partners is confirmed by national level developments especially with regard to wage developments. The position is more complicated, however, if the focus shifts towards local government and includes more decentralised levels with signs of resilience and reconfiguration.

In line with the findings of research commissioned by the International Labour Organisation, this project notes the threat to the public sector’s role as a good employer and highlights the important role of social dialogue in the process of reform and restructuring:

In combination with wage cuts, employment reductions and pension reforms the role of the public sector as an employer of choice is being challenged. In these circumstances effective social dialogue to safeguard social partner voice and to ensure more orderly and effective processes of change remains of paramount importance.

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