Monday, March 24, 2014
I spent my spring break in Modena, Italy, where every March since 2003, the Marco Biagi Foundation (MBF) at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia has hosted an international conference devoted to international and comparative employment and labor relations. I’ve attended the event annually since 2007, making this my eighthconsecutive year as a conference participant. The conference was held on March 18th and 19th, with a pre-conference Young Scholars’ Workshop taking place on March 17th.
This year’s conference, “Labour and Social Rights: An Evolving Scenario,” centered on the challenges involved in providing employment-related social protection programs at a time when more and more people work outside of traditional employment relationships. (Social protection, loosely defined, consists of the programs that form the social safety net, including, among other things, unemployment insurance, job retraining efforts, workers’ compensation, disability insurance, and publically provided pensions.) Particular attention was given to the economic forces changing standard employment relationships, the values and interests that should be protected as new types of work emerge, and the theories and strategies that should anchor new forms of protection for working people. Participants addressed these issues from a number of disciplines including law, industrial relations, economics, and human resource management.
As an American, I was struck by the extent to which neoliberalism and austerity continue to drive public policy in many countries, especially in the EU. To the chagrin of many scholars at the conference, the quest for workplace “flexibility” has not abated despite the continuing labor market crisis, which manifests itself in elevated unemployment in many nations. Similarly notable was the concern voiced by commentators about the rise in precarious work and the weakening power of trade unions. These problems are not new but they have been greatly exacerbated by the economic conditions beginning in 2008. Clearly, we in the US are not alone.
On the upside, it is apparent that scholars are eager to theorize beyond the traditional, paradigmatic employment relationship with the goal of extending vital social security protections to greater numbers of people. Rather than clear solutions, it seems we are in a period of complex problem-solving. This requires patience and fortitude, as new models are posed and their utility evaluated. Ultimately, however, this period of theorizing will come to nothing without political movements demanding change from elected representatives. In the meanwhile, however, it’s possible to expand one’s thinking about the existing challenges through interaction with labor and employment scholars from other countries.
I was particularly pleased to see prominent US scholars in the program this year. Trina Jones (Duke) gave an insightful paper on the contemporary challenges facing U.S. civil rights law. Mike Zimmer (Loyola U., Chicago) and Michael Fischl (Connecticut) addressed different aspects of the challenges facing unions with the former suggesting ways in which transnational unionism might be enabled and the latter gleaning lessons from the way low wage union organizing campaigns have strategically deployed traditional labor law and non-labor law claims.
As for me, I served as chair for a panel titled “Social Dialogue and Labour Standards,” which covered six papers written by professors from six countries: Germany; Russia; South Africa; Ireland; Italy; and Brazil. The discussion on this panel was very diverse since the papers were on six very different subjects. Even so, common themes were evident. The papers dealt with the way our understanding of what counts as ‘work’ is evolving and changing over time, as is our willingness to think about the rights and protections all people who work should be entitled to.Another theme that emerged from the panel was the variety of mechanisms that can be used to provide voice to the concerns of the most vulnerable workers.
In addition to chairing the panel, I helped organize and was a commentator at the MBF’s annual Young Scholars’ Workshop. This was my third year of involvement with this portion of the annual conference events. This year we heard and commented on papers from Ph.D. students from the U.K., the U.S., Italy, Hungary, and Spain. There were eight papers presented in all. Creating ties with the new generation of comparative scholars is one of the most exciting parts of the conference. The quality of the scholarly work they are doing is impressive.
Over time, the MBF has become my academic home-away-from-home. I have been privileged to serve on the Foundation’s International Council since 2009, and two weeks ago was appointed to the MBF’s Scientific Committee, the academic advisory board that advises the Foundation on all of its scholarly projects. The Scientific Committee met in Modena during the conference to discuss and approve the theme for the Thirteenth International Conference in Commemoration of Marco Biagi. The theme, tentatively stated, is: Employment Relations and Transformation of the Enterprise in the Global Economy. Stay tuned for the call for papers. I hope many of you will consider submitting a proposal.
Sounds like it was great, Susan. Thanks!