Dynamic Capabilities in Trade Unions? The Challenge of Attracting Temporary Staff in the Automobile Sector to Unions before and during the Economic Crisis

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Meyer, Dorit


Gerpisa colloquium, Berlin (2010)


Europe de l'Ouest, Présentation au colloque du Gerpisa, Presentation to the Gerpisa colloquium


Since the 1970’s, the number of temporary agency workers in Germany – as in many industrialized countries – has gradually increased. As former stipulations regulating temporary work were removed due to legal restructurings in 2004, this growth accelerated. Only very few temps had joined unions in spite of their need for union support because they work under worse conditions and receive less remuneration than employees with regular contracts. 
An important reason for the low percentage of organised temps is that until recently, trade unions termed temporary work ‘modern slavery’ and demanded an end to this form of employment. However, after years of declining membership, attracting temps as union members appeared as a possibility of reversing the trend of dwindling members. Unions began to realize that their rejection of the booming sector could not be maintained forever. The acceptance of temporary employment on the part of German unions manifested itself in tariff agreements. Trade union officials all over Germany began to rethink
their attitude towards temporary work. In many local and regional administrations all over Germany, campaigns to attract public interest to the working conditions and unfulfilled rights of temps were organized. Furthermore, trade unions managed to reach agreements with those firms employing temps, which resulted in working conditions for temps comparable to those of permanent employees.
Based on numerous interviews carried out by the author with secretaries of various unions, this paper will analyse the reasons why in some cities and regions such new strategies of recruiting new members have been developed, while in others trade union secretaries continue to ignore the concerns of temps: Interestingly, according to the empirical findings, there is almost no correlation between trade union activity on behalf of temps and the number of temps as percentage of all employees. Rather, whether or not new strategies of attracting temps are developed depend on particularly ambitious trade union officials in some local and regional administrations. They have recognized the need for action and promoted the development of new strategies to recruit temps in cooperation with works councils of both temporary work agencies and the firms utilizing temporary workers as well as through direct interaction with temps. 
During the present worsening of the economic recession, the implementation of strategies to represent the interests of temps and to organise them proves to be even more difficult than before: The number of temps in Germany had soared to a peak of 800,000 in July 2008, but then the temps became the first to be affected by the evolving economic crisis. The dismissal of temporary workers has become the main response of many German companies to the growing recession. Even under these circumstances, union officials have successfully promoted measures such as agency workers’ entitlement to short-time work. 
Having attempted to prevent the sharp increase of temporary workers and after many efforts to improve their working conditions in the past, since September 2008, trade unions have been struggling to protect these workers from being laid off. With the help of the concept of ‘dynamic capabilities’, this paper will highlight how the organization ‘trade union’ is developing new strategies to attract temporary workers by representing their interests and in what way these strategies have changed due to the current crisis. It will be demonstrated that because competencies – in this case the ability to represent temps and to recruit new members from their ranks – are spatially and hierarchically dispersed, the learning process of organizations such as unions is not all-encompassing, but the local union administration in one region learns in a different way from the local union administration somewhere else. In addition, the trade union secretaries at different hierar-
chical levels are involved in the learning processes. 

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