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Fürstenburg, F., (1993). Individual and Representative Participation, Dualism or Dilemma?, Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 1(1), 53-66.

Individual and Representative Participation, Dualism or Dilemma?

Friedrich Fürstenburg


Participation in work organisations has been examined according to two traditions presenting different philosophies of industrial relations. Anglo-Saxon models mostly focused upon direct worker control and immediate action of persons directly concerned. In contrast to this, the German model aims at creating a participative “Work Constitution”, an organisation framework with graded participation claims and rights to be executed by elected worker representatives. The far reaching consequences of such different approaches to the problem of Worker Participation are shown in relation to basic problem areas, such as work organisation, personnel policy and technological and organisational change. There is a trend towards greater individual participation, often combined with deregulation activities. Consequences for the further development of industrial relations systems are discussed.


Different models of participation in the world of work and their realisation reflect both basic societal trends and their specific sociocultural manifestations. The participation discussion till now is largely influenced by 19th century perceptions of industry suppressing trade (H. Bravermari, 1974): person-oriented, universalistic work attitudes with a higher degree of emotional ego-involvement became partially displaced by more rational, organisation-oriented, particularistic patterns with a rather high degree of ego-detachment. The famous distinction by Emile Durkheim between solidarite organique and solidarite mecanique as well as Ferdinand Tönies’ basic juxtaposition of “Gemeinschaft” and “Gesellschaft”, and the concepts of primary and secondary groups by Charles H. Cooley have provided a basic theoretical framework for the analysis of participation issues. Following this sociological tradition we have become accustomed to consider the world of work as a cluster of more or less strictly organised patterns of behaviour differing by the degree to which social roles have become formalised, segemented and even depersonalised due to increased division of labour, resulting in subjective perception of alienation.

Participation, therefore, was viewed from a dualistic perspective: within secondary groups or organisations, its manifestation became formalised, based upon statutory or contractual rules and norms, politically induced through representation of interests. From this point of view, individual participation took place outside work situations within interest-bound political movements and groupings, offering solidaric integration.

Within primary groups and face-to-face contacts, that is, in real work situations, participation was perceived as a more or less cooperative attitude based upon individual utility considerations or some kind of emotional affiliation, mostly regarded as a relic from pre-industrial times.

Thus, we may differentiate between two main types to be described as “representative” and “individual” participation. The former marks an interest-bound involvement in collective action, mainly put into effect by bargaining units or statutory bodies of representatives. The latter is characterised by direct personal involvement in goal-oriented problem-solving processes, also as a means to overcome subjectively-felt alienation.

The case of Germany clearly demonstrates that the emergence of these two patterns is closely linked with socio-cultural features. In addition to the basic distinction between organisation-centred and work-centred participation with their more collective or more individualistic traits, another dualism has developed due to the peculiarities of the relevant industrial relations system: because a distinction exists between collective bargaining at industry level between trade union and employer federation and at enterprise and plant levels between works councils and management, two modes of formal representative participation have emerged. The trade unions and their members, being blocked from immediate workplace-oriented action, traditionally aimed at large-scale settlements and regulations with even societal impact. The works councils and their constituency, in spite of being generally affiliated with trade union policies, have to pursue a policy of “working solutions” by facing the demands in immediate work situations. Legally, this dualism found expression in the provisions for participation via bargaining autonomy, via co-determination in supervisory boards and via co-determination within the framework of the Works Constitution Act.

Contrasting to this, individual participation emerged from provisions of the work contract and their interpretation by management. Its historical stages, therefore, illustrate the development of managerial ideologies aiming at motivation and social integration of employees. A changing labour force, changing work ethics as well as new production and qualification patterns strongly fostered the individualisation of work functions, especially in some high-tech fields, resulting in employee pressures for individual participation in goal-oriented problem-solving. They were matched by new managerial devices fostering semi-autonomous groups and partnership models.

Thus we may suggest that the two participation types in fact correspond with two “participation cultures” in Germany: one focusing upon political and conflictual action based upon collective solidarity within occupational status groups which is shaped by bargaining autonomy and graded by co-determination rights, and another one focusing upon cooperation in job-centred problem-solving which is shaped by participative managerial strategies and individual interests within organisation structures. We shall now discuss the problems inherent in both types.

Representative Participation

As already mentioned, there has been a tradition to differentiate between strategies influencing workers’ status and rights within larger socio-economic structures and those aiming at shaping the immediate work conditions and environments. The trade unions, however, always claimed with good reason the close connection between both spheres. Their ideology of “economic democracy”, already formulated in the late twenties by Fritz Naphtali (1928), was an attempt to integrate all issues relevant to workers’ basic interests. After World War II the initially decentralised reconstruction of West German industry in connection with high influence of re-established works councils opened a chance for introducing and institutionalising relevant structures and procedures. Co-determination, established at a full parity basis within the coal and steel industries, thus became the great model for all attempts to raise the level of political participation in the world of work. In real terms this meant a tremendous extension of trade union activities resulting in much greater concern for problems at enterprise and plant levels. Though traditional collective bargaining, mainly at industry level, remained the main function of trade unions, they gradually got involved in joint problem-solving processes with management representatives, which also resulted in cooperative and participative structures. A typical example is the emergence of “cooperative unionism”, especially within the construction, chemical and textile industries, and of course within the coal and steel industries, there even more, as in face of structural crisis only joint action by trade unions and employers was likely to succeed in finding government support.

The establishment and further extension of co-determination as an integrated system of information, consultation and joint decision-making at plant and enterprise levels, based upon statutory law, has turned representative participation — in the sense of work-related interest presentation — into a substantive and basically unchallenged part of working life. Representative participation ceased to be accidental and bound to some specific issues. Instead, a structure gradually emerged for dealing with practically any problem related to workers’ interests and even for joint rule-making via enterprise and plant agreements. Thus a network of statutory rights and contractual regulations emerged which strongly backs vested interests.

Such a system, however, also poses problems according to the contingencies it has to face. Within the context of this paper, shortcomings related to the efficient application and to its functionality in face of challenges due to economic and technological change, cannot be discussed. But there is one fundamental problem, inherent in all representative participation schemes, which is posed by co-determination in action: the extent and intensity to which it reflects immediate interests of workers and opens a chance for their articulation. There is ample evidence, also from empirical studies, for the alienating effects of formalisation and bureaucratisation, corresponding with the establishment of expert functionaries, upon workers’ involvement (Dahrendorf, 1965).

There are basically three ways for great participation within the framework of co-determination:

While participation rates in elections have been rather high (see Table 1), plant assemblies pose problems. First, according to a survey of the Federation of German Employers Associations, only within 51.6% of the plants investigated, such assemblies take place regularly and quarterly as legally prescribed. In 46.5% of the cases (mainly smaller enterprises) they convene “according to need”. Active participation furthermore is handicapped by the mass attendance of such assemblies and the wide range of subjects. As far as concerns consultation with works councillors, due to the relative distance from the actual work scene such interaction often bears the character of seeking advice at an office during office hours. In case of urgency, however, works councillors effectively enter the situation. But their complex duties do not permit a steady participation at the workplace together with their constituency.

Table 1
Participation in Works Council Elections
Year 1959 1962 1965 1968 1972 1975 1978 1981 1984 1987
% 73.4 76.2 73.9 73.5 72.1 79.1 83.1 79.9 83.7 83.3

Source: H. O. Niedenhoff, Betriebsratswahlen, Köln:
Deutscher Instituts-Verlag 1987, p. 69

This all indicates that representative participation within the German system of co-determination is rather indirect from the individuals’ point of view. In the mid-seventies there has been extensive discussion about opening this system by introducing “co-determination at the workplace” (Vilmar, et al 1973). Both management and especially trade unions, however, reacted negatively, partly out of fear from uncontrollable basic movements taking hold of the work situation. The trade unions tried to utilise this concept by introducing so-called “trusted men” at workshop level, but the management side, with few exceptions, resisted any claims to defer official functions to such a group. Up till now, individual participation rights and chances within the “political system” of participation are minimal as far as concerns direct involvement in consultation and decision-making procedures. In connection with “humanisation of work” programmes and experiments, however, quite a few attempts have been made to involve individual workers and small work groups in shaping their work organisation and responding to technological change. There is proof that such activities are needed and, if properly connected with relevant qualification, are acceptable to all parties concerned. They may even prove as sources of organisational innovation (Fricke, 1981). Therefore, consensus is growing on the principal desirability of activating individual workers to present their points of view.

For the majority of employees, formalised co-determination combined with increased rationalisation of work by management-oriented experts have resulted in rather “privatised” attitudes, already described by industrial sociologists in the late sixties (Mallet, 1963, Goldthorpe et al 1969, Fürstenburg, 1969), and characterised as an “absence of solidaristic orientations” (Goldthorpe et al 1969, p. 164). Its main feature is the selective restriction of interaction contents to those action fields which are under direct control of the individual. The avoidance of such types of interaction which decrease self-reliance may be interpreted as a strategy of partial retreatism, combining a high degree of merely functional loyalty in socially controlled relationships with a low degree of emotional involvement. This results from the individual’s feeling alienated from certain types of social activity which cannot be pursued or the pursuit of which is not considered to be worthwhile. There seems to operate mechanisms of self-enforcement strengthening the trend toward privatisation, such as gains in stress reduction and emotional security.. Under conditions of substantial reduction of working time, political engagement in issues related to work may even decline further.

In view of such perspectives, a co-determination system functioning from the point of view of conflict management and formal legitimation of structural changes may run into a latent crisIs. This may become even more evident when a young generation no longer shows engagement in organisational superstructures but searches for “politics at the grassroots”, not to the least as a means for self-expression. Therefore, the ways and means for individual participation in the West German world of work deserve special attention.

Individual Participation

The concept of individual participation also is well founded in traditions of social thought and action, mainly referring to liberal or christian social ideas. This may be best shown by discussing the concept of partnership in work relations which till now serves as basis for strategies to introduce and apply individual participation. From this point of view, matching of differing interests must be made desirable and possible between autonomous actors with equal rights, facing tasks to be accomplished jointly. Mainly such activities are related to problem-solving processes. According to their logical structure we may distinguish the following areas: participation in goal-setting, in search for adequate strategies, in decisions, in their implementation, in control and in distribution of results. According to the prevalence of income interests among workers in early phases of industrialisation, the development and application of schemes for profit and capital sharing have a long tradition in West Germany. Such models of material participation aim at granting additional income on top of wage claims. Their participation potential is based upon the following assumptions:

Especially in small- and medium-scale firms with stable market positions, such allocation of individual property rights and schemes for profit-sharing have been successful. In 1986, 1,353 enterprises were practising property sharing and 1.1 million employees participated as shareholders in their companies, which amounts to about 10% of all employees working in joint stock companies. Relevant offers made by the companies to their employees were accepted by 62.8% of them, which shows a remarkable willingness to accept a (rather moderate) share in risk capital (Guski and Schneider, 1986).

Of course, there are obvious limits to the participation potential of these models. From the subjective employee’s point of view, first, gains from risk capital can by no means compete in importance with wage income or even replace it. Second, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, employees’ share in invested capital falls far from any sort of parity and therefore also does not create a substantial power basis. Thus, not so much immediate results, but mid-range and long-term prospects need to be considered.

An unforeseen actuality recently was given to the issue of individual participation through property sharing by the coming integration of the German Democratic Republic’s economy into a Western type market economy. Practically all major enterprises there are state-owned and a large-scale privatisation appears to be necessary. This, however, is both politically and socially acceptable only in connection with respecting vested interests of the employees. Therefore, schemes for combining privatisation of capital with employees’ participation by granting a certain amount of shares to them, are seriously considered. If such plans get realised and are combined with the introduction of West German Co-determination legislation, a new participative structure of such enterprises might evolve which combines individual rights with their political presentation.

Participative property rights are without doubt important in cases of major decisions on the scope and purposes of an enterprise, on its middle-range investment and marketing policy and on the distribution of results. But their impact upon actual management and the shaping of work situations and conditions are not great. What matters most in everyday working life, however, is the individual worker’s chance and willingness to participate in problem-solving connected with his own functions. The traditional approach by management in West Germany to this issue had been rather indirect through the establishment of suggestion schemes and grievance procedures. But mainly the handling of this issue was left to informal “leadership practice”. Gradually, a model of “participative management” emerged, the main feature of which was the advocacy of continuous informal consultation combined with sociopedagogical efforts to increase motivation and qualification. Under the pressures from an individualised workforce and the demands of more flexible performance linked to high quality standards, this practice has changed considerably. The first step has been to elaborate and to publish manifestos for the employees, containing “principles for cooperation and leadership”, mainly based upon ideas of partnership. The second step was the implementation of such devices by establishing a framework for action through organisation and employee development directives. Gradually they become incorporated in a comprehensive model of “company culture” (Arbeitskreis für Kooperation and Partizipation, 1990). Within so-called “partnership enterprises” this set of ideas, strategies and organisational devices in fact amounts to an additional and sometimes even alternative concept and model of participation, based upon individual and cooperative activities. Especially in large companies, a similar management philosophy has emerged. Its basic components are:

All of this coincides well with a basic interest of the worker to optimise and to safeguard the utilisation of his occupational potential and to have a share in shaping immediate working conditions, especially when facing technological change. There is an obvious influence of the Japanese Quality Circle-movement.

The Challenge of Participative Work Organisation

The importance of individual participation is best demonstrated by considering the actual processes which constitute work organisations. Without cooperative participation by those directly involved, their shaping adequate to the need of individuals and small groups is practically impossible. Any relevant norm-setting at larger scale needs implementation. A fundamental pre-requisite for this is individual activities. They are needed to establish participative problem-solving procedures which incorporate authorisation, implementation, application and control activities.

At the shop-floor level work systems design has to be put into practice according to prefixed goals of production. This is done by a specific organisation of men and machines whereby technological relationships are implemented with social and personal factors or are transformed into social relationships. The decisive actors in this process are supervisors, foremen, shop-stewards or works counsellors, some staff employees of relevant engineering departments and the workers to whom tasks are actually assigned. An abundant literature is available for describing the complex interactions between these different persons and groups. Perhaps the most important fact is the interlocking of functional interactions with authority relationships.

The structure of these micro-processes of shaping work at the shop-floor very much depends upon the degree to which the average worker is considered an equal partner of his superiors or his elected representatives. If his interests are taken into account, interactions move along cooperative patterns. If this is not the case, latent conflict can be recognised in frictions of the work process and social relationships, sometimes becoming manifest in unofficial strikes or similar breakdowns of the social order of the shop-floor (Euler, 1973).

At the plant level the major aspects of work organisation are controlled by goal setting, job implementation and performance evaluation according to managerial plans. Besides, in cases of crises or adaptive difficulties direct intervention on behalf of the plant manager and his managerial staff takes place. It is usually at this level where negotiations between workers’ representatives and management concerning the structure and condition of work are most intensive. One reason for this is the fact that problems still appear to be concrete and power to influence them seems to be adequate. Within the perception of most workers the plant manager is the symbol of managerial authority. Despite the considerable social distance, the experience of frequent functional cooperation and the familiarity with the spatial environment create some common background for mutual understanding. However, the individual plant is by no means a self-sufficient or even the ultimate unit for decision-making concerning work. It is operating with its margins strictly set by higher management. This becomes particularly obvious in large-scale corporations. Of course very much depends upon the degree of centralisation or decentralisation of power within the industrial organisation.

The level of top management is characterised by a large amount of authorisation and decision-making power as well as by the availability of staff and expert services to implement given decisions. The design of work systems and the organisation of the social framework within which they operate is usually originated at this level. In larger enterprises top-management’s power is highly bureaucratised: it is not so much authority exerted by interference but rather authority exerted by rules. This makes it somewhat difficult for the average worker to have concrete ideas about the influence of top-management upon his actual work situation. In interviews he often refers to this level of decision-making as “the system”. Likewise the efforts of workers’ representatives to participate in top level decisions concerning work are usually rather abstract and result in sets of rules and regulations which need to be applied in order to show their proper meaning. One effect of this bureaucratisation is the departmentalisation of work aspects: while social and personal dimensions of work very often are object of discussions and negotiations between workers and management even at the top level, the economic and technological dimensions appear to be less affected by these interactions. In many firms they still form what is called management’s prerogatives.

Supervisory boards act as independent units for legitimisation and control of top management decisions. These bodies influence work organisation by distributing means for investment programmes, including special arrangements for meeting personnel and social demands in new work environments. The latter task increases in importance due to legal provisions for workers’ representatives as members of the supervisory boards.

An analysis of the different organisational levels where work structures and work conditions are being influenced shows the very complex nature of relevant decision-making. The analysis becomes even more complicated by realising that close inter-relationships exist between these different levels, reflecting the special shapes which is given in any enterprise concerned to the components of its institutionalised social framework. For instance a higher or lower, degree of centralisation of authority influences the distribution of decision-making processes related to work among the different levels. Likewise, a given communication structure may foster or inhibit the exchange of information between the different levels. Taking into account the large number of intervening influences in the process of shaping work in an industrial enterprise, it is likely that no one-dimensional participation scheme can be put into practice.

Generally, one may state that at the shop-floor level participation of directly involved workers seems possible; however, this participation usually will refer to the application of a given work system, though suggestions for planning changes maybe even more important. At higher organisation levels workers’ interests usually can be put forward by representatives, and increasingly expert knowledge is needed. At the highest organisation levels participation hardly ever concerns specific details of work system. Instead, general technological, economic or social considerations have to be expressed. This cannot be done effectively unless the persons involved are able to conceive strategic moves in middle and long range dimensions. Furthermore a thorough knowledge of organisation structures and the challenges which cope for their gradual change is needed. The more the level of strategic decisions is approached, the more the problem of power equalisation becomes crucial. Till now there is no consensus among theoreticians and practitioners in the labour movement whether such attempts to influence top management ought to be made from inside the organisation by sharing responsibility for the outcome or from outside by merely challenging management without committing oneself to the results. The controversial attitudes towards “Mitbestimmung” can largely be reduced to this basic problem.

Proper provisions for both individual and representative participation are needed to design and to realise work systems which ultimately are accepted by the persons and groups directly involved. This makes clear that interlocking participation chances and procedures are needed in order to guarantee not only efficiency and rentability of a given work system but also its acceptability in terms of matching differing interests.

The Perspective: Participation or Worker Control?

Presently, a main line of controversial discussion among representatives from trade unions and employers’ federations concerns the impact of flexibilisation and individualisation of work upon workers’ proper interests and their chances to articulate them through participation (Fürstenburg and Steinninger, 1986). While the management side emphasises such beneficial effects as a larger variety of work functions with higher qualification standards and greater chances for individual shaping of working conditions, especially working time, trade unions stress the risk of de-standardisation, resulting in fragmented and partly underprivileged personnel. In view of this issue, representative and individual participation are evaluated controversially. Representative participation usually tends towards rule making, both substantive and procedural. Thus, gradually a reliable system of mutual expectations and role commitments is established, granting the acknowledgement of vested interests. Representative participation is also considered as a proper means for achieving power equalisation in social systems. On the other hand, individual participation is likely to activate persons in social settings and to promote the articulation of their proper interests, thereby reducing subjectively perceived alienation. If there are no provisions for such activities, even an organisation designed for participation appears to be mainly “paperwork”.

Gradually, consensus emerges that flexibility need not become a synonym for deregulation and that representative participation is not made obsolete by new arrangements for individual participation. The real problem appears to be that two issues are linked by two bargaining parties which owe some manifestation of antagonism to their different clientele.

But any attempt to bring both representative and individual participation to some kind of synthesis is facing a fundamental problem in Germany. It is the debate about possible cooperation between partners as well in bargaining as in institutions of co-determination. Western observers have often stressed that the West German co-determination model is a deviation from the classical perception of militant bargaining parties representing capital and labour. From this point of view, institutionalised co-determination leads to cooperative unionism, weakening the willingness to fight for social reform and to present workers’ proper interests. The position taken by German trade unions has been rather ambiguous. In some branches of the economy, cooperative unionism has become deeply rooted, resulting in new and even institutionalised forms for joint problem-solving (Fürstenburg, 1988). Partnerships in special areas such as occupational training have developed. Within such a social climate, growing demands for individual participation within cooperative work organisations are viewed by trade unions with less suspicion. Contrasting to this, the model of “antagonistic cooperation” prevailing, for example, among the IG Metall, induces great caution towards any attempts to integrate individual workers and small working groups in goal-oriented problem-solving geared by management. This might foster “company-mindedness” instead of “worker solidarity”.

There is another fundamental aspect to a possible amalgamation of the two “participation cultures”: the problem of control in terms of political influence. There are basically three ways for establishing a power basis for control by workers and their organisations, capable to match property rights: bargaining strength, statutory rights through social legislation, and situative competence, meaning the actual capacity to solve problems inherent in work processes and work organisations. According to their traditional roots in the Labour Movement, West German trade unions have always tried to consolidate and to augment their bargaining strength by inducing government to transform workers’ claims into statutory rights. Their observance has also been considered a special control task, for example for works councillors in the case of accident prevention rules. From such a point of view, the individual worker’s contribution was considered to focus upon fostering such claims through “solidaric” participation.

This perspective gradually changed to the extent that real influence upon complex and changing working conditions more and more became linked to influencing relevant problem-solving processes and not only modifying their outcome. This is most obvious in the case of introducing new technology and anticipating related manpower problems. Control became linked to direct participation: Structural change cannot be mastered by market-oriented bargaining of certain revocable conditions. Influence upon the effecting decision-making processes is necessary. Thus, situative competence came into demand, either as expert knowledge or as the potential of experience and knowledge among those directly concerned. Still the main strategy to get control over a situation within the context of decision-making is to utilise expert knowledge. Both trade unions and management have established relevant departments with well-trained specialists.

But actual control in problem situations to a large extent also rests upon those directly involved: the individual workers. The more their qualifications rise, the more they claim a certain autonomy of action, the more they fight against subjective alienation, the more they also become a “political” factor. The resulting emergence of “situative” control out of traditional “authoritative” control implies a re-assignment of participation strategies from the point of view of trade unions and management.

The present state may be characterised as a period of trial and error. The traditional political strength of trade unions needs to be augmented by activating the individual worker’s competence. Participation in bargaining needs to be enlarged by participation in problem-solving. Both ways more and more depend upon the willingness and capability to cooperate, but not indefinitely and in the sense of uncritically submitting to managerial goals. Instead, a kind of “limited” partnership, limited both in time and scope, appears to be the model for gaining adequate margins for action. Both representative and individual participation are its fundamental prerequisites. They even merge in the case of problem-solving activities: power equalisation and the emergence of situative competence condition each other with mutual effect. Thus, a new perspective emerges, linking individual needs, organisational demands and political necessities by an enlarged concept of participation.


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