ilpc_logoAIER attended the 2016 International Labor Process conference in April in Berlin. Over 300 academics from around the world gathered to present and listen to papers on themes such as precarious work, voice and participation, the digital workplace and the implications for work of the politics of austerity.

Below is a brief summary of some the conference sessions and papers AIER attended and found particularly useful and interesting.


The future of work and role of unions

Reconfiguring work, increasing precarity and the role of unions was a theme through a number of presentations, including the opening panel titled Global Value Chains and Trade Unions. Kirsty Newsome, from Sheffield University, spoke about the importance of understanding the conditions of labour and argued that the central focus should be on understanding how power and inequality are reproduced through global value chains. She argued this focus allows a deeper set of issues to be explored including gender and the reproduction of labour; precarious labour; and how unfree and forced labour is connected to the restructuring of capital and business models. Torben Seebold from the International Transport Federation spoke of the work of the federation building power across national boundaries in the age of multinationals dominating the transport industry. Michael Fichter from the Free University in Berlin talked about how precarity in no longer at the periphery but all the way through the economy, that precarity is anti-union and that in response unions need to connect across borders and sectors. Finally, Mingwei Liu from Rutgers spoke about the rise of labour activism in China, which at present is placing pressure on official unions to become more responsive the worker demands.

In a paper titled, “Sources and Forms of Workers’ Collective Power: Movements and Institutions”, Adrienne Eaton and Susan Schurman from Rutgers University presented a matrix of elements to distinguish between when workers are exercising institutional or movement power. Their matrix considered elements such as disruptive versus protective purpose; horizontal versus vertical power; open versus closed organizational structures; ability to mobilise across boundaries versus ability to convert leverage into something tangible. The focus of their study was on informal workers and the movements that have been developing outside formal unions. Movements and organisations both have strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the paper, they posed the age-old questions – is it inevitable that organisations kill movements? Can we keep mobilisation power and exercise organisational power at the same time? They concluded by suggesting that the union movement needs to recover its movement side. These are pertinent questions in Australia as the union movement exercises considerable power within formal institutions but with low levels of membership and significantly reduced movement power. What would a disruptive, challenging, open, dynamic movement of workers acting collectively look like in contemporary Australia?

A paper on “Conceptualising ‘interests’ in industrial relations” argued that it is possible to empirically identify collective interests and that interests should be not be assumed from a class position.  The focus of the paper was on the process, that is, how do unions, for example, determine collective interests. The paper posited that unions identify and articulate interests through leaders, expert knowledge (judgments on what interest to proceed with) and training (linking workplace issues to collective interests). This is basically the theory of union organizing.  The more interesting part of the presentation (apart from the philosophical discussion on different concepts of interests from Marxist to sociological) was a discussion on how employers determine their interests. The paper argued employer interests should also not be assumed from a class position. Given capital, employers and managers can have competing interests and peak employer bodies will often have contradictory internal positions, how employers’ interests are collectively determined becomes an interesting question. The paper argues that employers use a similar process to unions, utilizing leaders, expertise and training. The point of the research and the paper is to help understand processes and how choices are made.


Increasing inequality within and across nations has grasped the attention of policy-makers, researchers and commentators world-wide. Work, wages and other conditions of labour are fundamental to the question of inequality. In a challenging paper Dr Jo Grady from the University of Leicester focused on the increase in low wages across the UK and argued that this growth in the low wage economy is the result of policy decisions made by government. Once inflation is accounted for, the real value of earnings in the UK has fallen by 15% since 2008. Dr Grady argues the low wage economy is not accidental but the consequence of a particular type of neo-liberal economy.

She identified three policy areas she argues have accelerated the development of a low wage economy in the UK. The three areas of policy are labour market programs and zero hours contracts that legitimize low paid work; financialisation of the economy and deregulation in the interests of business; and anti-union regulation. Her presentation focused primarily on the first set of issues – active labour market policies and zero hours contracts.

Dr Grady argues that both active labour market policies such as work for the dole and zero hours contracts are re-commodifying labour. Welfare policies like work for the dole (or our Government’s recent budget announcement of internships for young unemployed people) make people amenable to low paid work. These types of programs embed a different type of relationship with paid work. Similarly, zero hours contracts (or high rates of casualisation or labour hire or sham contracting) reconfigure the labour process and disrupt the constitution of working time as paid time. Unpaid labour proliferates. There is a shift in boundaries between commodified and decommodified time.

The financialisation of the economy has resulted in valuing profit over all else, whether it is quality control, the environment, workers, and even at times shareholders. Finally, anti union legislation introduced from the 1980s onwards which was not only not overturned but with the current Trade Union Bill poised to get worse has also contributed to low wages by reducing the ability of workers to win higher wages. Dr Grady argues that the downturn in wages was not inevitable but was facilitated and accelerated by governments pursuing these policies.

It is a thought-provoking paper that has lessons for Australia as well. AIER has previously noted the impacts of neo-liberal policies both in how they have affected the conceptualisation of work and its regulation as well as leading to policies that to our mind have harmed workers, increased insecurity of work and unnecessarily limited the role of unions.

Work and Life

The final area that a couple of key presentation touched on was what work means in our lives and the relationship between work everything else we do or might want to do in our lives. The keynote address of the conference was delivered by Joanna Briggs on her recent book “All Day Long: a portrait of Britain at work”. In the book, Briggs interviews a number of people about their work and visits them at their jobs. The interviews include a wide range of workers from painting china to people on work for the dole programs, to a lawyer, a writer and a creative director of an ad agency, to a sex worker, a call centre worker, a fishmonger, a barista, a healthcare worker and more. She described the intent of the book as wanting to understand work outside of statistics and economic parameters. She gave the audience a sense of the stories in her book, the way people talked about what they did, what they thought about at work, what to meant to them, and how work interacted with the rest of their lives. These types of books can be invaluable making public and present, bringing out from the shadows, what we really think about work. Briggs finished by suggesting that resistance to how we work now – how it overwhelms our lives – is essential.

The conference was closed by Jutta Allmeniunger from the Berlin Social Science Centre (WZB) which co-hosted the conference. Her presentation focused an argument for the redistributing hours of work across the lifecycle. She opened her presentation by being very honest that she was not presenting anything new. The data had been published before and the arguments had all been made previously. But as she commented, to win the policy changes – to win the public and political argument – we need to repeat these things again and again and again. Allmeniunger  made a compelling argument for redistributing working hours over the lifecycle as well as between genders, enabling more time with family in the middle parts of our lives, more times for adventure, fun and learning at the start of our working lives, and more time for work later in our lives. She was asked at the end about how proposal sat with the re-invigorated campaign for a 30 hour week. Her answer was that her proposal for redistributing hours, rather than reducing hours, was more achievable and politically palatable. However, in response to another question on how to actually achieve such an outcome she was clear that this type of policy outcome could only be envisaged when backed by other policies such as a universal basic income, particularly in these times of increasingly low wages.

The conference certainly got our mind buzzing with lots of ideas and connections which we hope to explore further in the coming year.