New debate on guiding principles of work organisation

In the context of a new debate on the guiding principles of work organisation, Klaus Pickshaus and Hans-Jürgen Urban from the German Metalworkers Union criticise the dichotomous perception of ‘high-road’ and ‘low-road’ strategies. They suggest a new sociological typology of work organisation, introducing a labour-centred approach that primarily focuses on employees’ interests and their well-being instead of company competitiveness.

About the debate

A new debate on models (Leitbilder) of work organisation is being called for by the working group ‘Production’ (Thematischer Initiativkreis Arbeitssysteme in der Produktion, TIK-Produktion) of the Initiative for the Improvement of the Quality of Work (Initiative Neue Qualität der Arbeit, INQA). TIK-Produktion brings together the federal state, mutual insurance associations, research institutes, the German Metalworkers Union (Industriegewerkschaft Metall, IG Metall), the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände, BDA) and the employers’ association for the German metalworking and electrical industry, Gesamtmetall.

Controversy about re-Taylorisation of production

The initiative was prompted by controversial discussions on the re-Taylorisation of production in the German metalworking and machinery sector. At the beginning of the 1990s, both employers and trade unions were rather optimistic about achieving the double goal of better productivity and better quality of working life by ‘modern-innovative’ forms of work organisation (see the German contribution (41Kb MS Word doc) to the EIRO comparative study A new organisation of work).

However, in recent years, a return to more Tayloristic forms of work organisation has been suggested to improve the productivity and competitiveness of German industry. The debate was triggered in 2007 when, in a conference presentation (in German, 332Kb PDF), a representative of the employers’ side rejected plans by the ‘ergonomics society’ (Gesellschaft für Arbeitswissenschaft, GfA) to define guiding lines of work organisation, saying that they were interventionist.

In June 2009, the initiative of TIK-Produktion led to the publication of a Synopsis on guiding principles of work organisation (in German, 844Kb, PDF) by the social sciences research institute (Sozialforschungsstelle Dortmund) of the Technical University of Dortmund (Technische Universität Dortmund) in northwestern Germany. Prior to the publication of the synopsis, TIK Produktion and GfA organised a workshop on the issue (in German) in March 2009 .

This article focuses on and summarises the intervention by Klaus Pickshaus and Hans-Jürgen Urban from IG Metall, who call for a new more sociological approach to work organisation.

IG Metall contribution to sociological debate

Pickshaus and Urban point out that available research literature is insufficient to grasp the strategic options of the actors at establishment level – that is, management, works councils and trade unions. Perceiving the shift from modern-innovative forms of work organisation to short-term cost-cutting strategies as a shift from a (German) high-road to a (US influenced, shareholder-value oriented) low-road strategy may be helpful for differentiating between qualitative (good work) and quantitative strategies (cheap work); however, such a perception ignores the inconsistencies and ambivalences of the effects of strategies.

The authors suggest a new sociological typology that takes the actors, objectives and actions, as well as the political arena, into consideration. By referring to Max Weber’s method of ‘ideal-type formation’, they introduce three approaches which do not claim to mirror reality, but are meant to generate analytical insight by way of abstraction.

Cost-cutting approach

A cost-cutting approach is prominent in most establishments of the manufacturing industries. Competitiveness is predominantly achieved by cutting costs, particularly labour costs, whereas there is a structural deficit in innovation, quality management, participatory forms of work organisation and workplace health promotion. Accepted models and standards of the quality of work are challenged and easily undermined. Relationships to works council and trade unions are most often conflictual.

Innovation and competition-oriented approach

An innovation and competition-oriented approach brings about competitiveness by promoting innovation. This approach typically implies interest in human resource development and in modern concepts of work organisation. Management is likely to cooperate with works councils and trade unions in concluding company pacts and agreements on training, productivity and new forms of work organisation.

Pickshaus and Urban commented that this ‘high road’ approach has been at the centre of political and academic attention as it suggests that competitiveness and good work practices (gute Arbeit) can simultaneously be achieved. However, according to Pickhaus and Urban, such a perception ignores the fact that innovative forms of work organisation and poor working conditions can coexist. Intensification of work, working without time limits, segmentation of the workforce and weakening of interest representation by new forms of ‘voice options’ may be effects of modern-innovative forms of work organisation that generate ‘bad’ work practices.

Labour-centred approach

This insight leads Pickshaus and Urban to introduce a third ideal type of approach: the labour-centred approach. They argue that the strategic option of ergonomics and work politics is to be redefined. The primary objective should not be a company’s competitiveness, but the interests and the well-being of its employees. Innovative concepts of work organisation are to be developed by employees, works councils and trade unions and are to be implemented by way of interest representation and counter-power (Gegenmacht). The labour-centred approach also calls for more regulation at sectoral and regional level to minimise competition, thereby broadening the realm of labour-oriented strategies.


In recent years, the debate on work organisation policy has become more polarised in Germany. While an employer representative from Gesamtmetall rejects the idea that the ergonomics society should define guiding principles of work organisation, the IG Metall representatives, Pickshaus and Urban, highlight the intensity of conflicts in implementing good work practices and introduce a labour-centred approach.

Birgit Kraemer, Institute of Economic and Social Research, WSI

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