The new and changing scenario (social, productive, technical and political)
of mature capitalism, puts in question the future of the trade union as
the privileged representative of the waged worker.
The centrality of capital-labour conflict under capitalism creates the
systematic need of means for the negotiation of discipline and control.
But do these means continue, today, to have the unions as a primary actor?
Do not current social, productive and technical transformations legitimise
new forms of worker representation? Will it be possible to rebuild the
social legitimacy of union representation in a situation of 1) increasingly
fragmented and dispersed social relations, and 2) of the decentralisation
The purpose of this paper is to analyse these issues as follows: by
1) identifying the historic functions and meanings of the union as a form
of worker representation; 2) sketching the social, institutional and productive
changes that lead this - and other forms of collective representation -
to a crisis of legitimacy; 3) speculating on the possible forms unions
could adopt as new organs of social identity and solidarity.
I. The functions and meanings of union representation
Throughout the 20th century, unions, as the historical form of worker
representation, have developed a variety of social functions. Such functions
have varied from representing the aspirations and claims of a relatively
homogeneous social group - creating its identity, framing its solidarity
and integrating its members into a society which excluded them - to contributing
to the system's social regulation by transforming individual interests
into collective ones and the latter into suitable proposals for collective
bargaining. The social and productive transformations of the last decades
have affected not only workers' relations with society in general but also
the unions in the above-indicated functions.
1. Union representation, social integration and the construction
of social and occupational identity
At the beginning of the 20th century, trade union representation primarily
expressed the collective construction of the social identity of waged-earners
- a central category of capitalist society. Within each trade workers were
relatively homogeneous: they participated in the same subculture, they
based their daily practices on similar rules and values. And the sharing
of a general common worldview facilitated the interpretative capacity of
the first forms of collective organisation.
A social identity is built when a group recognises itself as different,
distinct from another, when it recognises that it plays roles (through
the adoption of distinct rules, values and emotions), when it frames a
common group worldview, distinct from others. Identity -as a process of
the social construction and learning of roles, of collective forms of interpretation
and attribution of meanings - gives rise to a process of autonomy-construction
enabling action (accumulated and recognised as a historic memory by these
first forms of collective organisation).
Trade unions thus institutionalised a form of representation which fulfilled
a double mission: 1) the social construction of worker identity and autonomy
according to their occupational involement in the productive system (the
job); and 2) to contribute - on the basis of this differentiation from
and even confrontation with employers - to worker integration into the
capitalist social system.
There has been much discussion about the characteristics of this form
of representation, especially about the loss over time of union capacity
to build autonomous worker identity-forms. Such a loss is usually attributed
to bureaucratisation, seen as depriving these organisations of `direct
contact with the class'. This is an essentialist interpretation of the
union-worker or union-class relations. Social group representation, here,
does not mean the capacity to interpret interests and values guiding the
group but to in some way reflect a class essence (Rosanvallon, 1988).
The essentialist concept of representation is that working-class identity
comes, naturally and directly, from the identical interests of each occupational
group and that, as such, it is something given and immutable. From this
point of view, the unions of the early period appear as a natural reflection
of this essence. The construction of working-class autonomy is the natural
consequence of this direct and homogeneous representation. Representation
is, in this understanding, a reflection of the `needs' of a social class
or class sector.
Essentialism hardly helps us decode the problem of legitimacy faced
by collective representation in terms of the social construction of interpretative
capacity. Essentialism minimises the necessity of developing workers' capacity
to construct, interpret and identify themselves as occupational and social
This understanding devalues unions. Their representative capacity results,
in reality, not only from their class origin. It comes primarily from their
capacity to express, communicate and represent a collective-identity and
social-integration project for a group of workers discriminated by the
society of the particular time (Rosanvallon, 1988).
2. Trade union representation and instrumental rationality
The relative homogeneity preserved by groups of workers belonging to
the same trade has been broken by a new rationality invading the productive
sphere. The homongeneity consisted of occupational knowledge, a concept
of life, forms of family learning (transmitted as secrets from generation
to generation), values concerning the occupation, the craft and the product.
Under the Taylorist/Fordist socio-technical mode, work is devalued as an
occupation and re-signified as a means for earning a wage. The individual
job is no longer considered a specialised part of the global division of
social labour. As a means of earning a living, it merely allows broad sectors
of the population access to the distribution of goods, which is carried
out through the market.
The social integration of industrial workers and the development of
work systems which destroy trades (as a professional nucleus from which
material life is produced in massive form) brings about a historical transformation
of the basis of union representativity.
Collective representation no longer relies on an `occupationally' but
on a `socially' homogeneous group - workers - who have developed an instrumental
understanding of their occupational role and productive activity. In the
course of the 20th century, relations with the material world have become
organised in a utilitarian manner. Social relations constructed in the
employment situation tend to isolate and devalue occupational skills and
to restrict genuine interaction between workers. A merely utilitarian relationship
with labour requires weak occupational identities and the exercise of roles
in which the capacity for autonomy is low.
Work loses the element of professionalism. Collective representation
loses its capacity to interpret the worker's work and social worldview
- to respond to the instrumental logic imposed by the new relations of
labour. Collective representation, rather than being an interpretation
of the worker's life-world (Habermas 1984), becomes an interpretation of
the instrumental rationality of the world of labour. The loss of capacity
to interpret and construct the worker's labour and social worldview implies,
for unions, the beginning of a loss of capacity to generate identity and
autonomy amongst workers and a consequent crisis of legitimacy.
Along with the full development and institutionalisation of collective
representations, there takes place the social integration of workers. Society
recognises, accepts and negotiates the terms of their social and political
participation. Union representation no longer implies an opposition reinforcing
identity and providing membership to a group discriminated against by the
existing power. Trade unions now reinterpret the social and working interests
of their members in an instrumental way, forgetting issues of identity
and autonomy. Negotiations take place around wages and working conditions
- almost solely when they affect worker health or performance. Rarely dealt
with are issues of skill, methods of work organisation, new production
methods, and the control of society or production.
Instrumental rationality is extended from work to representation. Just
as there is no construction of a social and labour identity, neither is
there the construction of union membership as an expression of identity.
The union runs the risk of becoming less a social institution than another
service-rendering one and, finally, a market institution.
Instrumental rationality ends up with workers distancing themselves
from their representatives. Union legitimacy is now measured in terms of
their capacity to find solutions and obtain wage rises, job security and
social-security benefits. Unions become, in fact, advice bureaus concerned
with labour rights and duties, and social-security agencies, facilitating
access to the consumption of basic health, education, entertainment services,
etc. This movement from collective representation to instrumental rationality
turns the union into an agent of regulation for the social system.
3. Trade union representation and systemic rationality
Advanced capitalist societies, in the second half of the 20th century,
incorporate a range of institutions within their main system-regulation
mechanisms (Habermas 1976).
The trade union as an institution is no longer the expression of a collective
social representation but a separate political actor in their members'
lifeworld. This transformation of the union into a political actor has
very serious consequences. Not only does the union become an instrument
for obtaining social-security benefits complementary to those offered by
the welfare state, but also a political actor which, in contradiction,
is articulated with the systemic mechanisms for the social regulation of
Union integration into social self-regulation has been interpreted as
the `bureaucratisation' of the political leadership of such organisations.
Bureaucratisation represents forms of power and a logic inherent to a group
in power. Social and political analysts used to think that privileging
relations with `the class' would prevent unions being so instrumentalised
and integrated. Such an interpretation fails to recognise that the logic
of the system is permanently oriented towards the systemic integration
of the institutions which compose it, at the expense of the social integration
of their members.
Nevertheless, in modern societies, this separating and distancing of
the institutions from their members ends up by creating a feeling of their
illegitimacy and an increasing threat to the social integration of their
members. The primacy of systemic rationality lies no more in the actor's
identity and autonomy but in the identity and autonomy of the system itself
Social production today depends on knowledge and decision-taking spheres
about which unions know too little to be able to intervene, advise or negotiate.
Unions restricted to the sphere of macroeconomic decision-taking have little
to say about production processes. Here, where worker participation and
involvement policies affect their identity, solidarity and autonomy construction,
one needs concrete knowlede and technical-productive information.
II. Crisis and transformation in society and production
The deep changes taking place at the level of society converge with
the separation of collective representation, reinforcing the crisis of
legitimacy and system-control. The dilemma for the institutional representativity
of social movements is the creation of conditions allowing for the autonomous
interaction of actors at the very moment that new system-control conditions
are being created.
As a matter of fact, the new production models tend to exclude unions
both from worker representation and from system regulation. Given the exclusion
of workers, what can unions possibly do? Let us now consider in more detail
the possible changes in scenarios and functions.
1. Social changes
The development of mature forms of mass society has tended to multiply
points of points of social reference. Identity systems begin to be built
on the basis of the quasi-simultaneous exercise of multiple roles. These
social practices have a strongly differentiating effect on actors' interests
and worldviews. Plural membership, in diverse groups, with distinct objectives
and roles, makes the construction of collective identities more complex.
Social movements are now unable to construct real social identities,
relying instead on temporary identifications, directed toward well-defined
and utilitarian objectives. Membership of social movements or institutions
is no longer considered by actors as a totalising fact. Representation
on a more-permanent basis is questioned. It is difficult for institutions
to extend the involvement of their members over time.
The collapse of collective identity has a profound effect on unions.
As has already been stated, paid work has lost the capacity of providing
the focal point, and moral value, of life activity (Offe 1985). This process
has become more significant with the transformation of the labour process
and company organisation in the 1970s and 1980s.
The notion of work is today increasingly abstract. It has no reference
to an occupation with a specific content or social position. Work situations
appear more and more subordinate to public social and labour policies and
to company human-resource strategies. The sphere of work is shaped heteronomously
by public and business policy (Offe 1985). In collective bargaining, vital
conflicts and experiences appear overdetermined by social events outside
the work situation (religion, community, social and economic policies).
Skill, in the worker lifeworld, has been isolated and banalised in order
to reinforce worker control and discipline. But this banalisation has affected
labour creativity and quality. And this undoubtedly represents a new dilemma
for the productivity of work systems.
Under contemporary capitalism, the nature of work says little about
workers' interests, about their view of the world, their life style, their
skill. Company-specific subcultures, created on the basis of new forms
of work organisation, reduce the impact of global social and employment
influence on identity, recognition and membership processes. Admission
requirements, qualifications demanded, social recognition, the content
of work and the autonomy established, become more and more individualised.
Workers are not always selected for their previous experience. Experience
is considered rather a source of conflict or insubordination than of professionalism.
Control and discipline, rather than one's own professionalism, prevail.
This fact - rather than the worldview created by a specific job - continues
to inform the contradiction established by waged work.
The development of the tertiary sector, on the one hand, and of personal
services on the other, also changes the nature of work. The `customer'
philosophy imposed by the new productive logic mixes work forms `of production'
with those of `service provision'. Here the relation of the producer to
work becomes concrete not in respect of the product, or of a specific skill,
but in respect of the `satisfaction of customer needs' - of the service
provided. This relationship reveals a new logic of work organisation and
`professionalisation'. Here the technical production function becomes more
uncertain, the response to unforeseen circumstances more permanent, the
`service provision' more personalised and less standardised. This is why
some authors refer to the formation of a post-industrial service society
The `service-offering' nature of work - whether there exists a legal
labour contract or not - implies a new kind of skill, with different technical
elements and extensive communicational and relational ones. These features
tend to peripheralise the technical requirements inherent to the trade
or profession - and to establish conditions closer to that of citizenship
than that of labour. Here, identity with work as a life experience changes
radically and - consequently - the bases on which unions might contribute
to the building of new social and occupational identities.
The reduction in the importance of work to the formation of social and
occupational identities is not, however, limited solely to the change in
output from `product' to `service provider'. It is also related to a new
institutionality: tasks are carried out without contract stability, without
accumulation of occupational experience over time, without involvement
in collective bargaining (e.g. homework, telework, etc.), without a previously
defined job- description, without anticipation of unexpected situations,
without a defined working day or definite contract, and without a specific
workload. This new `institutionalisation' of work obviously separates it
from a kind capable of providing identity and autonomy - of making the
worker an `individual'. The new form of work makes it today a systemic
imperative of survival, rather than a social duty (the purpose of which
is to integrate the worker, both morally and autonomously, into society)
The social changes deeply affect individual identities. Within such
a context, in which reference systems are both focused and disaggregated
in time, and in which both the fact and notion of work are in crisis, what
can unions do to rebuild social and occupational identities and valid reference
2. Changes in the meaning and function of collective representation
The largest social movements and even the typical forms of collective
organisation tend today to acquire customer-type relations with the members
represented. Representation no longer implies member identity but a consideration
for something else. The member pays a certain fee for a specific service.
Under this instrumental rationality the idea of representation itself
undergoes fundamental transformation. It no longer expresses a capacity
for construction of collective identity but an instrument of mediation
and a means for obtaining equivalents. Representation, as a means of mediation,
can be applied to any group with common interests. Such a concept of representation
can be applied to both heterogeneous and homogeneous groups since it simply
implies the taking of concrete and specific action under more or less conflictive
conditions. Social representation has become banal, stretching from unions
to consumer protection or neighbourhood associations. The symbolic equivalence
of all kinds of representation ends up by unifying and obscuring social
relations, and banalising the relation which workers should have with unions
as an expression of their interests and worldview.
The social representation typical of democratic systems usually implies
a corporatist style which, due to its similar appearance, relates also
to trade union representation. We should not, however, be confused by this
appearance of similarity. The institutional forms of democratic systems
tend to an instrumental rationality, facilitating social negotiation when
market mechanisms are inadequate. These allow the mutation of ephemeral
interests and express themselves as groups exerting pressure in certain
areas of power.
Trade unions, in spite of their integration within system regulation,
are a bearer of multiple contradictions and ambiguities, even in a context
of deep crisis and the reconstruction of labour relations. Thus, even at
a moment of extreme weakness of their representativity, we cannot disregard
their base in central contradictions of capitalist society and increasing
asymmetries of power. Their roots in individual social and occupational
identity constitutes their strength, in terms of a capacity for workers
to create autonomous identity-forms.
3. Production changes
Productive transformations have given rise to profound mutations within
companies. The control of productive systems is no longer understood as
a process of adjustment amongst collective actors - as the `Fordist settlement'
provided - but is re-signified as the control of information flows both
within the company and between the company and its environment.
The company increasingly appears as an interactive system of information,
of communication, of decentralised and self-regulated economic, social
and technical decisions. Within this company model, associations of employers
recognise the necessity of new forms of social management. Such management
will no longer depend on macro-social collective bargaining, entered into
by more-or-less centralised representatives of the actors concerned. Social
management within these new organisation models depends on the introduction
of forms of communication, interaction, and the heteronomous involvement
of workers, allowing for integration with systemic company regulation networks.
As opposed to the Taylorist/Fordist model, in which participation was excluded
and/or suspected by company management - and only institutionalised and
centralised consensus forms between the representations were permissible
- the new work systems rely, quite explicitly, on heteronomous forms of
participation. These forms become part of company management systems.
The new forms of work organisation revalue, for capital, the site at
which data originates, at which information and productive knowledge are
built. In the new work systems, the centrality of information and communication
contains, has as its opposite, the fear and risk of autonomy - of discussion
by workers about the systemic integration proposed by the company.
A critical view of the rationale of company information and communication
systems could lead to the proposal of a decentralised representational
architecture, providing both for systemic regulation and social interaction.
These new forms of representation should be capable of creating, for workers,
autonomous reference systems and cultural models, alternative to those
proposed by companies.
Such a critical position would allow workers to challenge the current
hegemony of company management over the creation and expression of the
new production culture. Reappropriation of this culture by workers, during
a phase of profound technological, organisational and social change, would
be central to the generation of an alternative counterpower.
III. Union representation as communicative action
Instrumental rationality has entered the lifeworld, leading individuals
to organise their relations with the environment, and with other individuals,
in a utilitarian manner. Companies, and the institutions and organisations
of collective representation, have been influenced by this rationality.
Most of the the knowledge produced in contempory society is rational-intentional:
that is to say that it is a collection of technical information permitting
the relatively efficient handling of the material world, and of decisions
on the organisation of people, for utilitarian purposes. This rational-intentional
knowledge does not, however, take account of the `intersubjective relation
frame' on the basis of which consensus is built, values are incorporated,
collective goals articulated, an effective interaction and real social
integration are achieved (Wuthnow et.al. 1988). When representative institutions
forget about the construction of these intersubjective relation frames,
their legitimacy is endangered.
Rational-intentional knowledge facilitates the short-term operation
of social systems, at the same time that it encourages a legitimacy dependent
on social segmentation, demotivating and disarticulating their members.
This kind of rationality results in a `civil privatisation' effect (Wuthnow
et. al. 1988), that is to say, a lack of interest, of will, and of participation
in the public sphere. This civil privatisation facilitates forms of manipulation
within macro-politics, and heteronomous participation forms controlled
by private power.
Due to the privileged relation they still have with the workers and
citizens, unions could have a lot to say about 1) worldviews, 2) the reinterpretation
of complex or contradictory situations, 3) the reconstruction of a group
social and occupational identity (wage workers) and 4) the reconstruction
of social solidarity within a development model presently excluding a large
part of the population.
1. I and we: the reconstruction of identity and solidarity
Under the current Taylorist/Fordist model, instrumental rationality
produces productive and social practices permitting (with certain ambiguities)
opposing forms of collective social identity (employees vs. employers),
based on social relations, rather than those arising from concrete work
systems. In this sense, the Taylorist-Fordist work organisation model created,
among workers, worldviews, interests, relatively unified values in the
occupational sphere (simple, unskilled, specialised work). Social identity
was based on the social relations typical of capitalism, and solidarity
seemed to be built through the mechanical addition of individual identities.
Solidarity was constructed through resemblance, affinities, coexistence
in a world of shared values. The trade union was a mere recipient, the
gatherer of mechanically added solidarity. Its duty was to convert this
into rights to be exercised by other members of the same occupation, as
well as by other workers.
Labour relations today reveal a segmented world of labour, full of oppositions
and exclusions. Labour markets have changed their rules. Their governing
institutions create different situations around the same job, position
or function. Instrumental rationality is extended to all company levels:
it is applied in the technical and social areas as well as in internal
and external communication policies. Interactive communication projects
company-integration forms as a system. Companes show little interest in
contributing to the creation of an autonomous employee identity. Participation
forms necessary for the management of the company as a communication system
may be expressed in individual involvement devices, oriented neither to
the formation of collective identity nor to solidarity. Such individual
involvement has cost-benefit calculation as rationale. Benefits are obtained
by the individual and, as such, represent personal advantages which are
not extended to the collective nor to society. Instrumental rationality
is a major obstacle to the surpassing of individualism and the acquiring
of a collective and solidarity behaviour.
Within the new context of production, solidarity arises neither from
daily practice nor from co-operative organisational principles. Solidarity,
under these conditions, has to be formed, to be agreed upon. The `we' concept
does not, in reality, prevail as a constraint on individual ambition.
The new forms of production organisation and labour revalue, for capital,
the informative capacity of productive systems, which presents itself as
a capacity to control natural and social processes. The capacity of the
systems to create informative networks, however, does not manage to include
social interactions. These occur spontaneously, in non-reflexive manner.
It is on these that much productive knowledge is based, providing answers
to unforeseen conditions and conflictive situations. The control of systems
operating in highly uncertain environments is based on a capacity to establish
forms of supervision and control over these spontaneous interactions and
forms of regulation (Habermas 1986).
The future of the unions, in this struggle, rests on control over productive
knowledge and communicative processes. This control of knowledge is not,
however, merely a matter of control over the sources of information but
over the means of interpretation, the means of consensus-creation, of a
common worldview, values and sentiments. In this sense, the `value' of
the union is no longer as an advice bureau or a social security agency,
or in its capacity to create system-governing rules, but in terms of communicative
action (McCarthy 1978). Here the most important thing is the reconstruction
of social-interaction forms leading to solidarity and to the preservation
of employee autonomy. These forms of interaction are focused on the development
of effective and critical means of reflection and communication. Communicative
action is not confined to the act of understanding a fact or event, nor
to mere interpretation. It implies a co-operative interpretation process
allowing for agreed and co-ordinated action. The rationality immanent in
daily practice refers, then, to argument, to criticism, to the possibility
of identifying and correcting mistakes, to that of examinining the veracity
of statements, the rectitude of actions and rules and the authenticity
of expressive statements (McCarthy 1987). Solidarity, in future, will no
longer be defined in terms of group sociology, of group identity, but in
those of ethical action (Rosanvallon 1988).
2. Trade union representation and communicative action
Trade unions, as the privileged form of employee representation, are
confronted by radical changes in their social and occupational settings,
in their historical functions, in the kind of links and interactions they
have with those they represent, as well as in the forms of power which
- as a new type of communication process - they build up with both employees
Within a context of worker disarticulation and social fragmentation,
unions could become a useful form for the arbitration of diverse and conflicting
claims. They would no longer be resticted to the automatic and quasi-reflective
representation of a homogeneous social group. Instead, they would take
on an eminently communicative nature as interpreters and constructors of
standards for the distribution of resources among social groups. Communicative
action provides a basis for those collective representations, worldviews
and feelings which unify, in both values and action, those social sectors
that the current production pattern opposes, divides and excludes.
This type of solidarity cannot be built from `outside', by systemic
institutions. It relies on communicative resources inherent in the lifeworld,
in the basic life-experience of employees and citizens.
The future of the unions lies in the construction of a solidarity of
a new type (Rosanvallon 1988), based on the construction of consensus between
differentiated groups. The construction of this kind of solidarity implies
unions which, rather than being integrated with system-regulation mechanisms,
are focused on society, which have sufficient capacity to rebuild the social
tissue, to overcome exclusions, to establish new rules among actors. Such
a mutation implies a cultural change: moving from a that of mobilisation
- based on a notion of homogeneous interests and a dynamic of social conquest
- to one aimed at the construction of a new type of communication process.
The reconstruction of legitimate collective representativity depends
on the validity attained by discourse between top officials and workers.
Such validity brings into play three basic dimensions of communicative
action: the claim - with respect to argument - of rectitude, of veracity
and of coherence. These dimensions demand consideration of the relationship
existing between the top officials, the workers and society. The claims
of rectitude, veracity and coherence require that the theoretical and practical
reasons on which moral action lies be perfectly articulated. The construction
of consensus requires the setting aside of extra-argumentation co-action
forms. It requires complex communication processes, based on interpretations
that put in question elements of the objective world (Habermas 1987) (e.g.
unemployment, dismissals, discrimination), elements of the social world
(specific and particular interpersonal relations in a specific labour collective),
and elements of the subjective world (worldviews, values, lifeworld experiences).
Social systems are always formed through communication (Luhman 1984),
that is to say, through multiple selection processes which anticipate actors'
expectations. Communication takes place only if the selectivity of the
message is understood. Nevertheless, actors may autonomously reject this
choice and create a situation of conflict. The choice runs a higher risk
of being rejected when it is based only on language. In every society there
exist real social constructions based on the shared experiences essential
for communication. Unions need to establish communication and power-construction
forms allowing them to achieve referential systems for interpreting the
world. They will therefore have to identify and rely on these social constructions
that act as references of the objective world, of the social world and
of the subjective world. The reconstruction of solidarity, of social and
occupational identity, and the construction of a workers' social integration
project (from an autonomous view of system integration), can only be carried
out if the union is reinserted in the social world and occupational life
of the worker.
We cannot, however, forget that the unions represent power-construction
forms within society. They are, consequently, organisations which must
develop specialised codes and communication media beyond direct interaction
and language as a general code. Power, as communication, must take into
account the other party's code-selection principles, his possible actions,
his strategy. It is obvious that the selectivity of both is distinct and
that, in addition, this differentiation implies conflict and the risk of
Power is exercised, basically, in the communicative dimension influencing
the selection of codes, media and interpretation by the other party, influencing
his acts and omissions. In general, power as communication increases the
freedom of both parties, creating optional situations in which the principles
and values determinining selectivity are at stake.
Union power can be rebuilt if these organisations are capable of creating
among their ordinary members, their leaders and society, special interaction
codes and communication media allowing for the agreed treatment of specific
issues, such as solidarity, involvement and skill. Union loss of power
and legitimacy has been a loss of the capacity to communicate and construct
common worlds among workers, society and system. Power, as a communication
process, does not only imply an agreed manner of alloting resources under
conditions of shortage or crisis but, primarily, a social means of taking
possession of them for their re-creation on the basis of a collective project.
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Habermas, Jurgen. 1989. Problemas de legitimación en el capitalismo
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Luhmann, Noklas. 1984. The Differentiation of Society. New York:
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