As workers’ representatives face the challenges of digitalised work and fragmented workforces, a ‘University of Labour’ in Germany offers support.
To cope with the diverse challenges piling up in economy and society today, those involved in codetermination and labour relations need support from the academic world. That is why the University of Labour was founded and officially recognised in April 2021.
Starting this winter, trade unionists, works councils and staff councils, as well as human-resources managers from codetermined companies, will have the opportunity to complete a full course of study with a bachelor’s or master’s degree without interrupting their own job. The University of Labour completes the House of Labour in Frankfurt am Main as its third pillar.
Union and advocacy work must look different now than in the heyday of assembly-line manufacturing. Crowd and click working, individualisation and digitalisation, rationalisation and industrial transformation are huge challenges for trade unions in the 21st century.
The answer can only be more employee participation and more codetermination. Trade unions know from their history that there cannot be fair management of societal changes without real participation by employees.
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From a democratic as well as a social and economic point of view, institutionalised employee participation provides a suitable framework. Scientific studies have long indicated a positive connection between codetermination and corporate success. There are many reasons: negotiations between employers and interest groups create trust and acceptance, while codetermination bodies aggregate preferences, channel conflicts of interest, stabilise working relationships and, crucially, contribute to better company governance.
For members of codetermination bodies, trade unionists and other employee representatives, further education becomes increasingly important. Communication with members and employees must be much more innovative in a digital, fragmented working environment than in a spatially defined milieu such as the factory floor.
Social interactions are changing in companies, as employees are affected in different ways by reorganisation. The discrepancy between different employees’ needs and between the low skilled and the highly qualified is growing. Organising them requires an employee representative to have high social skills—just as important as knowledge of the legal and economic framework.
The outcome of negotiations between employers and employee representatives has always been determined by the professionalism and expertise of the negotiating partners. Nowadays, it is customary that academically trained negotiating partners on the employer side should face equally well trained figures on the employee side.
The type of training available at public universities, however, has its limits. Often there is a lack of content specifically for works and staff councils—codetermination and labour relations in general are usually not seen as relevant parts of an academic degree in economics or business. Here, the University of Labor is taking a different approach.
The challenges for trade unionists and employee representatives have seldom been as great as today nor well-trained representatives so important. With scientific concepts, theories and specialist knowledge, students from the University of Labour will be able to create a working environment that focuses on employees and social sustainability. The aim of the new university is to strengthen people professionally, but also to encourage them to shape the working environment in the direction of a just and democratic society.
As a value, labour is an integral part of democratic societies. Validating its societal significance, in times of social and industrial transformation, is also a task for trade unions.
In the study programmes of the University of Labour, the content is geared towards precisely these topics. In subjects such as accounting, finance, organisational theory, educational science or project management, the focus on codetermination and labour relations is always central. This also takes into account demands for a pluralistic understanding of science and a multidisciplinary approach.
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Classes are designed to be ‘job-integrative’: the operational experiences of the students are subjects of scientific consideration and generalisation, while the students will carry back to their companies and institutions what they work on scientifically during their studies, in the form of concrete projects. This is thus not only beneficial for the students individually but also for their companies.
This winter term, the university starts with two bachelor’s degree programmes: business administration, with a focus on labour relations, and vocational education, with a focus on work and organisation. Further programmes are being planned.
Due to the current changes at the workplace and in the context of the modernisation of entire economic sectors, many new research areas are emerging. What consequences, for example, flow from new forms of work organisation and employment? What perspectives for the institutions of codetermination arise? How can development-promoting work be implemented in the evolving cloud and ‘gig’ economy?
An interdisciplinary approach is essential to answer such questions—and many more. Innovative research in industrial relations has diverse and interrelated references to law, education, economics and the social and political sciences. This creates organisational challenges for a young university. Solutions lie in collaborative alliances with partners from science, society and the trade unions.
In any event, the challenges in the world of work can only be mastered collectively. For this the University of Labour will play a supporting role.
Tobias Söchtig, a political and economic scientist, has been at the House of Labour in Frankfurt am Main since 2017. In the University of Labour, he advises the university management. Before his studies, he completed an apprenticeship as an industrial clerk and worked for Daimler AG in Braunschweig.