Sub-theme 65: Reimagining the Institutions, Actors, and Practices of Good Work

Patrizia Zanoni
Hasselt University, Belgium
Markus Helfen
Hertie School of Governance, Germany
Andreas Pekarek
The University of Melbourne, Australia

Call for Papers

Work is fundamental to human development and wellbeing, and therefore a critical concern in understanding how to organize for a good life. Images of ‘good work’, however, are always situated in historical and political contexts and realities and shaped by institutions that promote or thwart them. Currently, institutionally unfettered capitalist relations – epitomized by “shareholder value” and rising inequalities – tend to reduce work to a commodity. Yet work is not just something to be sold on markets (Polanyi, 2001). The selling of our work generally entails relinquishing control over the modalities of working, its product, our relations with others through it, and therefore what we can become by engaging in it (Marx, 1974). Against this background, there is an urgent need to reassess and reimagine good work in, around and across organizations. Therefore, the subtheme asks how the spaces of ‘good work’ can be maintained and extended, how new ones can be established, and how barriers to ‘bad work’ can be removed (Delbridge & Sallaz, 2015): What does ‘good work’ look like in contemporary organizing? How can we strive for ‘good work’ under extant institutions? And how can images of ‘good work’ assist collectivities to develop organizational practices of solidarity, resistance, and change within, and potentially beyond, capitalism?
Seeking to bring together perspectives from multiple disciplines on work and organization to advance knowledge, envision alternatives and stimulate new integrative insights, we particularly welcome submissions related to the following three main subthemes:

Institutions and ‘good work’: Struggles between legacies and change

Institutions, ranging from formal standards such as minimum wage laws and collective agreements to informal rules such as organizational cultures, profoundly shape our working lives. The rules of work govern the way work is performed, organized, and remunerated within and across organizations. Manifesting differently across time and place, and intersecting with other institutions (e.g., the family, education systems, colonial legacies, etc.), institutions also fail to resolve the contradictions between capital and labour inherent in capitalism. As the dramatic dislocations caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have revealed, rule-making mechanisms like collective bargaining, unions, work councils, and labour law are squeezed under the combined pressure of political attacks, technological advances, demographic changes, new business and management models, global value chains, and environmental challenges, laying bare profound dysfunctionalities and voids in the regulation of work and employment from the local to the global level (Wilkinson & Barry, 2020, Haipeter et al., 2021; Morris et al., 2021). Inside and across organizations and countries, precarious work arrangements have diffused and multiplied, leaving a growing share of workers without protection (Lazzarato, 2009; Rubery et al., 2018).
Illustrative questions include: How do institutional legacies constrain or enable change in the regulation of work? How dooes public and private regulation clash or complement each other in promoting good work standards in global value chains? What are the ideational bases for different conceptions of good work? How does the intersection of work institutions and other institutions (e.g. migration regimes, family regimes, ableist cultures, colonial legacies) undermine good work? What are the pressures and possibilities for revamping existing institutions of work as well as creating better institutions for making work more democratic and sustainable?

Actors of ‘good work’: Interests and influence

The profound fragmentation and dysfunctionalities of work-related institutions direct attention to the multitude of actors with a stake in them. Labour politics are an increasingly diverse, fragmented, and unevenly structured field. Such complexity brings into focus democracy, deliberation, contestation, and consensus-building as various actors popularize divergent frames of good work to suit their interests (Gahan & Pekarek, 2013). For example, worker representation, once a unique domain of unions, is now claimed by a variety of organizations. As the reach of traditional unionism and collective bargaining has declined, alternative forms of collective action ranging from worker centres and living wage movements to freelancer and gig workers’ organizations as well as virtual social movements such as DemocratizingWork have emerged (De Coster & Zanoni, 2022; Healy & Pekarek, 2020). However, the impact of such organizing is unclear; indeed, it may be opaque in whose interests these new organizers operate. As for management, corporate reorganization through outsourcing and subcontracting has placed downward pressure on pay and working conditions and fuelled the spread of labour market intermediaries such as labour hire firms and HR consultants (Bonet et al., 2013). State agencies, regulating work at different levels, face a growing challenge in monitoring and enforcing labour standards. They may also become targets of worker campaigns or their allies. For example, the UK’s Living Wage movement has mobilised with some success in promoting higher minimum wage levels (Dobbins and Prowse, 2022). Meanwhile, capitalist actors plead for self-regulation, with associative bodies advancing arguments in favour of purposeful and responsible business, including employment relations (Gooberman et al., 2018).
Illustrative questions include: Which new actors are attempting to advance ‘good work’? What political strategies have been used to counter the fragmentation of labour to protect ‘good work’? With which results? How do new digital technologies enable workers to organize and mobilize for ‘good work’ in hostile environments? How can consumers and other parties be enlisted to help or hinder worker struggles across time and space?

Practices of ‘good work’: Identities, mobilization and resistance

To understand how managers, workers, unions, state agencies and the courts engage with and shape organizations, the labour process, and the (collective) regulation of ‘good work’, it is important to delve into social practice (Vaara & Whittington, 2012). There has been ongoing debate about the essence of good work practices. For example, purportedly progressive programs such as Employee Engagement have been critiqued (Keenoy, 2013). Practices of ‘good work’ need to be understood not in universal, abstract terms, but from the perspectives and experiences of those in work. These workers are heterogenous due to differences in legal status, bargaining power on the labour market, position in society, role in social reproduction, and embodiment, to name only a few. Reinventing institutions of ‘good work’ requires working through these multiple positionalities as opposed to recovering a lost ‘standard’ which was never meant for them. The debate around ‘essential work’ under the Covid-19 pandemic has foregrounded the contradiction between the value of certain jobs, disproportionately carried out by subordinated social groups, for our life and how they are valued under capitalism (Stevano et al., 2021).
Illustrative questions include: What practices of ‘good work’ reflect the multiple perspectives and need of a heterogeneous labour force? What processes are needed to define a bottom-line of ‘good work’ practices? How can workers and their allies mobilize effectively in pursuit of ‘good work’? How can ‘good work’ practices be envisioned for structurally undervalued work of social reproduction disproportionately carried out by subordinated subjects? What novel practices of ‘good work’ exist that challenge capitalism?


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  • Healy, J., & Pekarek, A. (2020): “Work and wages in the gig economy: can there be a high road?” In: A. Wilkinson & M. Barry (eds.): The Future of Work and Employment. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 156–173.
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  • Wilkinson, A., & Barry, M. (eds.) (2020): The Future of Work and Employment. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Patrizia Zanoni is Full Professor at the School of Social Sciences of Hasselt University and holds the Chair in Organization Studies at the School of Governance at Utrecht University, Belgium. Drawing on various critical theories, she investigates power dynamics in contemporary organizations with special attention to the role of diversity (gendering, racialization, ethnicization, ableism) and technology and possible alternatives to work and employment under capitalism. Patrizia is Co-Editor-in-Chief of ‘Organization’.
Markus Helfen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany. In his research he combines organizational theory with questions of industrial and employment relations, especially with a focus on multi-employer work arrangements and global supply chains. Markus has recently published in leading management and industrial relations journals like ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Human Relations’, and ‘British Journal of Industrial Relations’.
Andreas Pekarek is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Management and Marketing at The University of Melbourne, Australia. His research focuses on how collective action by workers and their allies can steer the world of work in a more sustainable direction, towards fairness and social justice. His recent projects have examined gig work in the platform economy, unions and collective bargaining, and the HRM occupation. Andi has published in such journals as ‘British Journal of Industrial Relations’, ‘Human Resource Management Journal’, ‘ILR Review’, and ‘New Technology, Work and Employment’.