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Disintegrating Democracy at Work: labor unions and the future of good jobs in the service economy

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Virginia Doellgast
Cornell University Press (January 2012)

The shift from manufacturing- to service-based economies has often been accompanied by the expansion of low-wage and insecure employment. Many consider the effects of this shift inevitable. In Disintegrating Democracy at Work, Virginia Doellgast contends that high pay and good working conditions are possible even for marginal service jobs. This outcome, however, depends on strong unions and encompassing collective bargaining institutions, which are necessary to give workers a voice in the decisions that affect the design of their jobs and the distribution of productivity gains.

Doellgast's conclusions are based on a comparative study of the changes that occurred in the organisation of call center jobs in the United States and Germany following the liberalisation of telecommunications markets. Based on survey data and interviews with workers, managers, and union representatives, she found that German managers more often took the 'high road' than those in the United States, investing in skills and giving employees more control over their work. Doellgast traces the difference to stronger institutional supports for workplace democracy in Germany. However, these democratic structures were increasingly precarious, as managers in both countries used outsourcing strategies to move jobs to workplaces with lower pay and weaker or no union representation. Doellgast’s comparative findings show the importance of policy choices in closing off these escape routes, promoting broad access to good jobs in expanding service industries.

  • Virginia Doellgast is a lecturer in comparative employment relations in the Department of Management at LSE.

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'In Disintegrating Democracy at Work, Virginia Doellgast compares the changes in the organization of frontline call center jobs in the United States and Germany. Doellgast conducted nearly three hundred interviews with key informants in both countries and compared the qualitative findings with the quantitative results of an international survey. This is an innovative book; there are not many internationally comparative studies on wages and work organization with such a broad empirical base and such a profound knowledge of institutions and the organization of an industry.'
Gerhard Bosch, Universität Duisburg Essen

'This unique and original book makes a major contribution to comparative industrial relations. It is a solid empirical analysis based in the growing service sector and examines a globally growing occupation, the call center customer service representative. Virginia Doellgast argues that both participation rights and union bargaining power are important supports for the adoption of high involvement employment systems.'
Jeffrey H Keefe, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Disintegrating Democracy at Work