The Role of the Shop Steward in Organizations using High Involvement Workplace Practices
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Characteristics known from Human Resource Management have recently been reintroduced through terms such as high involvement workplace practices (Geary, 2003; Gill, 2009; Pil & MacDuffie, 1996). These work forms emphasize the integration of business and employee relations strategy, and labor-management cooperation for the achievement of organizational goals (Gollan & Davis, 2001). Most of this literature leaves out the unions and concentrates to a larger extent on direct involvement processes where the workers are seen as individuals (Boxall, Haynes, & Macky, 2007; Gomez, Bryson, & Willman, 2010; Kochan, Katz, & McKersie, 1986; Marchington & Wilkinson, 2000; Wilkinson & Dundon, 2010). Some writers have even indicated that the high involvement work forms are threatening unionmanagement cooperation on workplaces, basically because different versions of involvement and participation has been incorporated as part of the organization’s structure and work practice, which again makes indirect participation through the union stewards less important (Wilkinson, 1998). In an European context, collective participation remains significant in certain countries, notably Germany and Scandinavia (Nergaard, 2010; Wilkinson & Dundon, 2010). Heckscher (2001) indicates that the future form of unionism lies in union strategies much closer to productivity and labor-management cooperation than labor-management relations based on antagonism. He claims that the unions with the highest level of internal participation in recent years have not been militantly anti-capitalist, but rather have sought to link internal participation with deep involvement in management decision-making. This study attempts to explore the role of the shop stewards in organizations using high involvement workplace practices. I have used theoretical approach found in the Industrial Relation field together with organizational studies in order to investigate the role the shop stewards develop in organizations using high involvement workplace practices. This thesis is a result of an inductive-deductive process, where I have examined theory and research on both the role of the shop stewards in industrial companies and the use of high involvement workplace practices, parallel with collecting and analyzing the data material on the role of the shop stewards in such workplace practices. This is a qualitative study where I have used a number of different methods in order to illuminate the research question. Most of the data material in this study is collected through an Action Research project called PALU where four industrial companies participated. I also carried out interviews, and shadowed in two additional industrial companies. The main research question is: In the context of labor-management cooperation, how can we understand the role of the shop steward in organizations using high involvement workplace practices? In order to embark on the research question, I developed four sub-questions out of a bundle of organizational characteristics known as high involvement workplace practices, such as less hierarchical structure, highly-skilled production, high involvement leadership practices, and direct employee involvement. The subquestions are: 1. How can we understand the role of the shop stewards in organizational structures based on the assumption that the workers take responsibility for communication, knowledge sharing, and decision-making? In this study I have argued that the shop stewards take an active role in informing and developing the shop floor workers and by this make the employees ready for high involvement organizational structures. This study also shows that when the shop stewards are involved in enterprise development processes together with the management, they develop knowledge and skills on organizational development issues and include this as part of their representative role towards the members. This means that enterprise development and production issues become part of the information the shop stewards give to the members in the same way as other union matters. Because of this I argue that the shop stewards become channels of communication on productivity issues on the shop floor. Taking an organizational approach to this finding, the shop stewards safeguard a role on communications not necessarily taken into account by most researchers on high involvement workplace practices. 2. How can we understand the role of the shop stewards in high-tech industries, where the enterprises are dependent on skilled and flexible workers? In this study I have argued that the enterprises’ demand for skilled and flexible workers changes its character in meeting with the union principles such as collectivity and solidarity. The shop stewards participate in developing the members’ skills as a way of securing the members’ rights by emphasizing both horizontal career development and the members’ psychological job demands. In addition, the shop stewards themselves hold knowledge on the shop floor that is important for the highly skilled organization. The shop stewards approach to the demands for a highly skilled workforce influences the enterprise’s workplace practices towards a more horizontal and collective approach to skill development. 3. How can we understand the role of the shop stewards in high involvement leadership practices based on labor-management cooperation? In this study I have argued that the shop stewards participate in complementary leadership practices where the shop stewards hold past, local knowledge about the company’s challenges and opportunities. For new managers this means that some issues may be new to them when entering the enterprise development scene, while the shop stewards on the other hand are quite familiar with the issues at stake. The shop stewards’ experience is therefore complementary to the managers’. 4. How can we understand the role of the shop stewards in organizations that emphasize direct involvement between management and the individual workers? In this study I argue that the shop stewards support direct involvement arrangements because they see it as motivational and promising for the union members. They influence these work forms by making sure that they develop as collective workplace practices. This way the shop union protects the individual workers against possible demands in this work system such as self-imposed demands and goals. Also, the experiences from one of the companies shows that the role of the shop stewards seems almost boundless when it comes to developing the enterprise into a stage the shop union sees as promising for the union members. When the change process is over and the new organization goes over in an operational phase, the shop stewards are unable to have such an offensive role because leading an organization on a day-to-day mission is too closely linked to management and not leadership in a broader sense.