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Peggy De Prins Sociale verkiezingen
Human Resources

Does your voting preference in political elections also show in your attitude toward social elections?

On June 9th, both the regional, federal and European elections in Belgium will be held. And if that’s not enough “voting” for you, in the upcoming weeks more than 7,000 companies in Belgium will hold social elections. Over 2 million employees are expected to vote for their representatives in the Works Council and/or the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work (CPPW). These representatives will contribute to workplace participation and engagement over the next four years. But what about employee participation? Are unions still the right approach? And is there a connection between voting preference in political elections and attitudes toward social elections?
Peggy de prins phd
by Peggy De Prins, PhD | May 16, 2024
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Peggy De Prins Sociale verkiezingen

Antwerp Management School (AMS) conducted a study on employee participation, employee silence, and workplace taboos in collaboration with SD Worx and Het Nieuwsblad. In spring 2024, they surveyed 1,700 employees. The results showed that as many as 73% of respondents not only enjoy but actively participate in workplace consultations and participation processes within their organization. However, there is still significant room for improvement.

For instance, in terms of psychological safety, 34% of employees hesitate to express their opinions at work, fearing potential negative consequences. Additionally, 39% prefer not to open up and show vulnerability for fear of being perceived as 'weak' employees. What’s more, 48% feel unheard due to the cumbersome hierarchical structures of their organizations. Clearly, not everyone feels empowered to voice his or her opinion.

Partnership thinking instead of conflict thinking

This is also reflected in the responses regarding the employer-employee relationship. Participants were asked to characterize this relationship on a scale of 0 to 10–0 representing very hostile (“Us Against Them”) and 10 representing very constructive (“Together As One”). On average, the 1,700 respondents rated the employer-employee relationship at 5.8 out of 10. This score indicates that many Flemish organizations are still struggling to find their way toward a partnership model.

In such a model, efforts are made to find common ground and develop mutually supported solutions between employee and employer. However, unlike countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium tends to lean more toward conflict thinking, which runs counter to the “Together As One” narrative. The business mindset and the employee mindset are more often than not at odds with each other.

Is there still support for union representation?

In such a partnership model, do unions still have a significant role to play? Belgium has a long tradition of formal dialogue through employee representation; the first social elections date back to as early as 1950. But do employees still see union representation as an added value today? The response to this question was a relatively high 6.6 out of 10. Thus, it is safe to say that there is still broad support for this type of workplace democracy.

Not surprisingly, blue-collar and white-collar workers value union representation more highly. Surprisingly though, there seem to be hardly any age differences in the appreciation of union representation. Despite being less likely to join a union and despite feeling more empowered to speak up, the younger generation does not necessarily reject forms of indirect workplace participation such as union representation.

Arguments pro social elections often support partnership thinking. Thus, one respondent testified: "Elected colleagues know the organization inside out and are very much aware of both its strengths and weaknesses. They are well placed to negotiate with management." Other frequently mentioned arguments pro include:

  • advocacy,
  • the spokesperson role,
  • a sense of justice,
  • and striving for a balance of power.

Opponents, on the other hand, point mainly to:

  • the complexity of organizing social elections,
  • the fact that union representatives are not a representative of all employees,
  • the suspected wrong motivation of candidates,
  • the lack of results,
  • perceived overprotection,
  • conservative reflexes, etc.

One respondent remarked: "I often feel that some individuals think they can get away with almost anything because they are union representatives, and managers cannot or dare not speak out against their behavior or actions."

Social elections and voting preference

The study not only investigated support or opposition to social elections in the workplace but also explored whether there is a link between political and social elections. In other words, does a preference for one political party over another correlate with a positive or negative attitude toward social elections? The data suggests that respondents with a preference for Open VLD, blank votes, or N-VA scored the lowest, while those with progressive (Groen) or far-left (PvDA) voting preferences scored the highest. A similar pattern was found when it comes to trust in union representatives.

Enhancing employee participation in the workplace remains a focus for many organizations. This is particularly important because the business mindset and the employee mindset in organizations are often at odds with each other. Conflict thinking still prevails within Belgian organizations. At the same time, 73% say they enjoy participating in consultations and participation processes. Thus, the clash between the two mindsets does not seem to exclude a vibrant “participation” culture. Anno 2024, union negotiations through the Works Council and/or CPPW continue to have a solid and sustainable support base, admittedly with many supporters but also fervent non-believers.

Peggy de prins phd

— Peggy De Prins, professor labor organization

About this study

This research was carried out in collaboration between the AMS Next Generation Work expertise center and SD Worx. The survey was distributed under the title "Participation Barometer. Are you being heard at work?" Fieldwork took place from February to March 2024 among a large population of working Flemish people. In total, 1,698 completed questionnaires were collected, including, by gender, 20% men, 79% women, and 1% X; by education level, 4% lower educated, 18% middle educated, and 78% higher educated; by job profile, 44% workers, 43% middle management/professionals, and 12% senior management/directors. Respondents were recruited through the channels of the three partners, who sent out invitations via social and digital media. Additionally, the researchers' personal networks were used to recruit extra respondents (snowball sampling). This approach has implications for the composition of the sample, with an overrepresentation of women and higher educated individuals. Therefore, the data were reweighted based on data from the Labor Force Survey (EAK).

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