Different Roads To Worker Wellbeing

As my children have grown and traveled and lived in other countries, I’ve come to realize how truly unfortunate American hubris is–how our belief in “American exceptionalism” and assumed superiority prevents us from learning from the experiences and experiments of other nations.

In several previous posts, I have mentioned that my “techie” son currently lives and works in Amsterdam. Thanks to contemporary technologies like FaceTime, which have replaced those expensive “long distance” phone calls, we talk often. And because we’re a pretty political (okay, nerdy) family, those talks often turn to matters of political philosophy or public policy. I don’t recall what triggered our recent particular discussion of workers’ rights, but my son shared with me information about Netherlands’ work councils.

Any company that employs at least 50 workers is required to establish a Worker Council.
Companies employing between ten and fifty individuals must do so if a majority of  employees request it. (If those employees don’t request establishment of such a council, there are requirements for holding staff meetings at which employees are entitled to “prior consultation” about proposed changes.) Companies with fewer than ten employees aren’t subject to these requirements.

Work Councils aren’t unions. They are a legal requirement for businesses in the country,  charged with promoting and protecting employee interests. Such councils must be consulted before the owners or managers of a company can implement major decisions affecting workers. Councils are empowered to consent–or withhold consent–to changes that affect workers’ “terms of employment.”

Company managers must meet with their Works Council at least twice a year, and there are requirements for worker representation on those councils.

Evidently, work councils aren’t simply a feature of Netherlands’ governance– multinational enterprises operating in at least 2 countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) come under the jurisdiction of something called “the European Works Council Directive (EWC).”

Companies required to establish these councils are further required to give members of those councils time off to do work required by that membership, and are legally required to provide those individuals with leave for the necessary training. Employers are also required to pay all the costs of such training.

The law requires that works councils be informed and consulted about economic issues, but gives the councils the right to approve or disapprove changes on social issues. I’m not clear on how “social issues” are defined. And I’m definitely not clear on the relationship of the councils to labor unions: in the regulations my son shared with me, it says:

Works councils are not directly trade union bodies although most have a majority of trade union members. It is, however, very common to find that some of the works council members are not in a union and in some cases trade unionists are in a minority, or even not present at all.

I asked for links to the information because–during our conversation–my son had explained that his company had proposed some fairly significant changes to vacation time and other elements of employment, but the Worker Council had required changes to the changes. Evidently, after some back and forth, agreement was reached–and presumably, all parties were satisfied.

I was fascinated.

Here in the U.S., diminished union membership has translated into much diminished worker power. Rather than labor and management bargaining from roughly equivalent positions, economic change and loss of worker power has given management a highly disproportionate ability to “call the shots.” The existence of these Worker Councils suggests that, in the Netherlands and in the European Union, there is genuine concern for the well-being of employees, and for the maintenance of a reasonable balance of power between labor and management.

I certainly don’t know enough about Europe’s experience with these councils to have an informed opinion about their performance, but I wouldn’t even have known of their existence but for a conversation with someone–in this case, my son–who benefited from their operation.

I wonder how many other potentially good ideas we Americans miss because we are so convinced that “we’re number one,” and others have nothing to teach us….


  1. When Chrysler was circling the drain years ago, the “management” brought in Lee A. Iacocca to right the ship. One of the first things he did was form such councils mentioned here. He was especially impressed with himself in that he included labor and union leaders to sit at the boardroom tables.

    Imagine that. A business organization doesn’t necessarily have to be run like a tyrannical dictatorship. Huh. Funny thing. Those kinds of all inclusive groups sort of emulate… well, democracy. If the members at the board meeting are elected by the employees it emulates, uh, er, a democratic republic.

    Iacocca’s experiment save Chrysler from bankruptcy and actually pushed them into black ink in just a few years.

    Gee, I wonder what would happen to the United States government if we did something like that with people who were legally obliged to SOLVE problems instead of stonewall, block or otherwise defeat progress. Maybe removing Mitch McConnell from the U.S. Senate would be a good start.

  2. I assume that American corporations which have branches in the Netherlands are required to implement these work councils, and that the branches function efficiently in spite of having input from workers. That suggests that if they were implemented here, the corporations would also function efficiently. And that suggests that the only reason American firms that have the councils abroad but not here, do so because they don’t want to share any “power” with the workers unless they are required to do so by the law. That says a lot about how Capitalism works here, doesn’t it?

  3. “Companies required to establish these councils are further required to give members of those councils time off to do work required by that membership, and are legally required to provide those individuals with leave for the necessary training. Employers are also required to pay all the costs of such training.”

    Due to 20 years working in Indianapolis City Government I found the above paragraph of great interest as employees were not allowed to form unions. Training was sorely lacking in city and county jobs; I could type fast enough with a minimum of typographical errors, answer a few questions intelligently and I was hired. I was then told what to do but not how it was to be done or what office procedures need to be followed. Computers were introduced in the early 1980’s; we were told what program to use but not how to use it, no training was provided on this strange machine. Being a government office, there were situations when work load and required time frame were issues which required short times over the regular working hours. Support staff did not qualify for overtime pay; the times I worked I did not want or expect overtime pay, I was completing my job assignment. Taking comp time was their answer; so loss of hours meant work piled up on desks during forced time off of the job. I can’t speak for the private sector for they were for the most part not open to hiring former local government employees. And yes; I did try.

    “Work Councils aren’t unions. They are a legal requirement for businesses in the country, charged with promoting and protecting employee interests.”

    Are these same Work Councils part of government offices, are unions allowed in Netherlands government and business offices; are medical, factory settings and service jobs with the required number of employees included? About 4 years ago, nurses in IU Health, Methodist and Riley Hospitals attempted to start a union but were shot down. Look at the jobs they are doing today treating Pandemic patients without proper or enough equipment and supplies; do they have anyone to turn to for help and relief. We are seeing the answer is “NO”. They are dying along with their patients due to deplorable conditions; the result of “American exceptionalism” as our own “Nero” golfs while half of this country protests the “election steal” by gathering in maskless masses to spread Covid and donate to support a losing cause.

    “American exceptionalism” appears to be beneficial only to those in the current Trump and McConnell administration; we would have to start at the top to provide Work Councils as Republicans have done away with most unions. American workers have nowhere to turn for help at this time; will the House Democrats be strong enough to provide the safety net they are fighting so hard to put in place?

  4. Even though we think we’re fairly Euro-centric, there’s much about European countries we don’t copy – universal health care, paid family and medical leave, universal pre-school, paid maternity leave until a child is two years old, vocational education that trains students for various skilled trades, multiple languages learned, bullet trains, well-behaved children and pets – there’s more but you get the idea.

    U.S.companies complain that they can’t do these things because it would make them non-competitive. Every other developed country has figured out how to provide universal health care. I wish we’d compete with them to do it even better.

    And yes employers treat employees as real partners in Europe. Employers don’t feel they can maximize quality, productivity, and profits unless management understands applicability of management’s decisions to their front-line operations and employees. Gee, consistent outreach for understanding – what a concept. We have so much to learn.

  5. Wonderful post, Vernon.

    Sheila writes, “there is genuine concern for the well-being of employees, and for the maintenance of a reasonable balance of power between labor and management.”

    Imagine that!

    Why did our Founders fret so much over developing this little society we had. Were they enlightened beings who knew that humans, if given a chance, wouldn’t be inclined to accept their fair share? If left to their own devices, they would take from others.

    This is why you implement checks and balances to prevent one person from taking more than his fair share. I am sure there was a word for it back then. Maybe; theft. If I want more than I have, I’ll help myself to what you have. Well, then why should I accept less?

    And so it goes ad Infinitum.

    Ironically, a young lady on Twitter this morning said, “There should be no billionaires in a country where we have lunch lines.”

    Think about that for a minute. Don’t rationalize or justify why one has more, and one has less; think about the Truth within her statement. I told her she was a prophet.

  6. It isn’t just the business and industry communities with their bought and paid for conservative governments that are an obstacle to this idea of Worker Councils; it is the ingrained idea in so many worker’s minds that all “unions” are bad/corrupt/thieves. And along with all that anti-union thinking there is the other mindset taught to Americans from the cradle on up, and that is that we are a nation of rugged individuals each capable of working our own deals with management. “I can take care of myself. No need to work together”. And then in a crisis we cannot understand why such a large part of the population refuses to join their fellow countrymen in doing something as simple as wearing a mask.

  7. Get over the fact that we live in America folks and have totally different culture – individual v/s community. And instead of complaining about it, understand that there are things in it and rising in it that increase worker power – and they are decried like unions – coops. ESOPs, B-corps. Since these exist and are tolerated, how about incentivizing more of them??

  8. People are the greatest expense but also the greatest asset of a company. American companies have forgotten this. They decided to care for their shareholders who don’t cost them any money. Instead the shareholders give them money.

    It has been stated repeatedly that when employees share in the profit of a company and are involved in the decision making process, their productivity increases as well as their loyalty. But corporations in this country no longer value loyalty. What they value is their short term profits.

    I never thought that I as a nurse would get downsized. But in 2003 St. Vincent’s cut 500 jobs from their Stress Centers including mine. 90% of their mental health and addiction services were cut. This sort of downsizing helped to lay the fertile ground for an opiate epidemic.

    There are many things we could learn from other countries ie how to contain an epidemic, ways to create a health care system that is equitable and accessible to all. American arrogance of which Trump is a symptom will easily damage our ability to compete in a global economy.

  9. Theresa Bowers; thank you for your as always on target comments. The problem is the mental block in American minds, the refusal to understand the meaning of “socialism” as it is currently being used for our benefit. All unions were believed to be communist inspired organizations to take over the working class across America. Remember the Joe McCarthy/Roy Cohn era with the support of J. Edgar Hoover who saw a communist behind every bush and refused to see (or just refused to admit) the mafia element in this country.

    Why do you believe Trump has continued to cry, “Where is my Roy Cohn?” throughout his term in the White House. Does he believe Rudy Giuliani is a replacement for Roy Cohn or is he just easily manipulated to lower himself to carry out Trump’s mindless demands? Look at the “worker wellbeing” in Trump’s revolving door administration; Trump is the sole member of the Republican “worker council”, his solution to those who cease to support his impossible demands is “Off with their heads!” Who will be next; Bill Barr or will Rudy’s court jester performances put him at the front of the line?

  10. I don’t think I am smart enough to post here…nevertheless:
    My family of 4 moved to the USA from Denmark in 1960. I was 8, my sister 4.
    My father got a temporary job helping a company that turned into a career, retiring from there as a chemical scientist.
    I graduated from San Jose State. I can easily compare my life to my Danish cousins.
    Our generation were the first college graduates.
    They graduated debt-free; it took me 5 years to pay off mine. I was late on ONE payment; requiring me to have a co-signer for the car I purchased 6 years after graduation.
    As to work: no comparison to European companies is possibly positive, as written in your article.
    As a woman in male dominated industry, I fought to be heard, implement my ideas.
    I am now retired and glad for it!

  11. “……As my children have grown and traveled and lived in other countries, I’ve come to realize how truly unfortunate American hubris is–how our belief in “American exceptionalism” and assumed superiority prevents us from learning from the experiences and experiments of other nations…..”

    Sheila….thank you for a really good day’s blog subject….I so agree….Americans in the main have little or no experience in other countries….and as a result are ignorant….blind….and close-minded…. the worst aspect of many Americans behaviors is their belief they know everything about the world and its people.

    I’m happy for you and your son in Amsterdam…and what the two of you have shared about the Netherlands and other european countries.

    I’ve spent short duration working times in Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Japan as an engineer. My technical awareness as a result….was minor….when compared to what I encountered about their peoples….and their ideas.

    In those countries nobody asked me what I did for a living…nor did they seem to measure me with THEIR yardsticks ( as Americans are prone to do ). Mostly people I encountered wanted to know how I felt and was I happy.

  12. Most of my career was at Kodak. When I started in 1964 it was doing very well and at least some of that could be credited to George Eastman’s progressive liberal employee policies. He really saw employees as the owners of the enterprise and our mission was satisfying customers. I can almost remember the day that that changed.

    We often hired consultants to offer up what was known as the idea of the month club. Mostly what they brought to the table were common sense ideas packaged as new and the short term emphasis on them reinforced that they contributed to the work culture some more and some less.

    The downfall of all of that success began at the hands of a new member of the idea of the month club who taught executives that corporations really had only one stakeholder to satisfy, share holders (who previously had been kept satisfied but were absolutely not the first served at the table). The consultant sweetened the pot but also saying that executives ought to be motivated to satisfy shareholders by also being rewarded with stock options and, bingo, the millionaire executive was created. That wasn’t what finally killed the golden goose for everyone but it started a major dysfunction in the corporate culture not the least of which was complete destruction of employee – employer loyalty.

    Talk about an idea with legs. That one very quickly became the basis for MBA education and spread like wildfire through corporations.

    After that I worked for a company in Switzerland that put the new Kodak to shame in almost every way. It was private owned by a very wealthy, single and beyond middle age lady who was very vocal about her prime interest which was to serve her country, Switzerland. It was still the Kodak that I joined in 1964.

    What all of this taught me is that there is no single way to share corporate success but some work better than others. Currently the American mindset about that is as dysfunctional as possible but assumed by our national arrogance to be the only way. Many millionaire executives just can’t imagine better.

  13. Excellent post, Robin. Very insightful.

    Lester wrote, “Since these [coops] exist and are tolerated, how about incentivizing more of them?”

    Most of the people involved in new economy research have reached the same conclusion with the US form of capitalism and propose a form of a worker-owned business model as a solution.

    Who would this frighten the most?

  14. I seriously doubt there will be any Progressive Policies that will rock the boat of Steroid Capitalism.

    The leadership of the Democratic Party: Schumer, Pelosi, Tom Perez and Biden are not Progressive in terms of Democratic Socialism. Biden announced John Kerry would be taking a full-time position in the administration, serving as a special envoy for climate; in this role he will be a principal on the National Security Council.

    2017 Kerry reversed his position on nuclear power, saying “Given this challenge we face today, and given the progress of fourth generation nuclear: go for it. No other alternative, zero emissions.” Ahh yes, no Green Deal here.

    Joe Biden did win by over 7 million votes. However, the Democrats lost seats in the House. Given all of The Trumpet’s visible character defects and his grossly and profoundly incompetent lies about Corona you would have expected a 1932 FDR type of victory for the Democrats.

    As David Atkins has written: the Republican Party is, in essence, on a civil war footing against Blue America. Importantly, the reverse is not true. Democrats spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about how to reach and persuade rural and red-state voters.

  15. Although aggressively anti-union, my company, often cited in the 60’s and 70’s as America’s best-managed large corporation, did several things that kept employees’ minds off unionizing. First, they paid us – not lavishly – but fairly. Second, they went out of their way to give pats on the back, often in the form of a monetary award conferred at branch meetings. Bosses went out of their way to let employees know that their contributions mattered. If you did your job well, you attended a “symposium” (convention) once a year in a great American city, received priceless amounts of education, and if you were interested, were eventually given a shot at becoming a manager. If you failed at that, your old job was waiting. In my 25 years there I saw only a couple of people fired. Significantly, employees were part of almost all discussions and planning sessions and were listened to if the quality of their suggestions merited it. Once the company sent a private jet to an island in the Caribbean to medi-vac a colleague (not an executive) who had been seriously injured by a freak wave while on vacation.

    I had the pleasure of working briefly with a 25 year old woman who consistently sat quietly at meetings until the end, when she spoke up- and brought up the most compelling suggestions- the ones the rest of us had been groping for. I say “briefly” because she quickly moved on to bigger things.

    Companies give up a lot by not showing appreciation for the people who make their businesses succeed. Almost more than wages, people need to know that what they do with the biggest part of their lives matters and that they are not invisible. Workers will sacrifice a lot for a company which acknowledges their importance. It costs nothing. It’s human nature.

    As for American exceptionalism, most Americans who have worked abroad find that notion absurd. That’s part of an “America first” mentality, and is invoked only by those who fail to realize that we’re all in this together and that brains and talent are distributed evenly throughout the world. My evidence is that most native born Americans could not pronounce, let alone spell, the names of many of the the epidemiologists and virologists who have contributed the most to the fight against Covid-19.

  16. I worked for two companies in my entire IT career. The first was for a local hospital chain that grew from one hospital on the east side of Indy, to 7 major hospitals all over central Indiana, in the 25 years I spent there. They had a philosophy of growing employees with training. There were monthly management training sessions. HR was there to make the employees more productive for the company. It was an amazing place to work. In 25 years they may have slowed hiring, but they never downsized. I left after 25 years when new IT management was brought in and they just ignored the corporate culture and it got unbearable.

    The second half of my career was in the IT with the local power company. They were a 100 year old company that got bought by a holding company in Enron era. They were unionized, and HR was there just to protect the company from liability. They did a downsizing with what seemed like a goal of getting rid of long term high wage (and older employees) while I was there. The long range goals seemed to be what would get a profit on the next quarterly report. There was little training on technical skills and no training on HR skills ever. I work with volunteer organizations that have better training programs than that company. They were punitive in their policies. They made changes with out ever talking to the employees. Even though IT was non-union, in same ways things were not as hellish mainly because of the union. But the union sucked the life out simple tasks, because of strict requirements about who could work on what. Despite coming home from work crying on occasion, I stuck it out for 12 years there because it got me to my goal of early retirement with a great 401K matching plan.

    My point is there are companies in the US that do care about their employees and there are companies that are part of the steroid capitalism. My first employer would have embraces the idea of employee councils. The second one would have most likely sold off IPL and bought a power company in Kazakhstan so they would not have to deal with the regulations.

  17. Pete said;

    “What all of this taught me is that there is no single way to share corporate success but some work better than others. Currently the American mindset about that is as dysfunctional as possible but assumed by our national arrogance to be the only way. Many millionaire executives just can’t imagine better.”

    Well said!

    Being involved with the union, the IBEW for years, approximately 30 or so, and, local 150 operating engineers, one thing I’ve noticed, you have to be connected with union leadership to get appropriate representation. The unions fight amongst themselves for representation of workers. Many of the unions don’t really cooperate as they should amongst each other. In other words, the union leadership is just as corrupt as corporate management!

    Human nature?

    Of course! Because if it wasn’t for power, there wouldn’t be manipulation of history, there wouldn’t be manipulation of religion and the induction of such into secular society, there wouldn’t be manipulation of laws and political edicts to afford power and control to one group or another. Look at how the Senate refused to meet with Barack Obama’s selection for the Supreme Court? That was out and out illegal in my opinion. When an entity of government refuses to carry out their oath of office for partisan dogma.

    When the opportunity presents itself, a vast majority of humankind will gravitate towards shenanigans! It’s an in the inbred desire of wanting to get over, of greed, of coveting something without consequences! There really needs to be layers of law, but when the judges of that law are compromised, what do you do? You are hoping men do the right thing, do the right thing by their neighbors, do the right thing by their family, do the right thing by those under their purview, but in essence, has that ever really happened in history?

    I would have to agree with JoAnn’s comment on the issue, from the beginning, Manifest Destiny, American Romanticism, American Exceptionalism, all required a foot on the neck of the lesser! That’s the way the world works, and I don’t envision that changing much.

  18. It seems that one of our biggest dysfunctions is in not recognizing and accepting learning as well as teaching as the real meaning of life.

  19. Sheila: Thanks always for provoking our thoughts and jarring us out of our comfort zones. We need that!

    Helle: Welcome aboard! You most certainly have a place here. Thanks for your input about Denmark.

    Todd: Thanks for the quote from Twitter by that very wise young lady. More profound than she could have imagined. Billionaires and food lines are a terrible mix.

    Robin: Thanks for your wise reflections and your service in nursing.

    Pete: You nailed it in one sentence. It is so true that teaching and learning will help us to get where we want to go. Our local literacy council needs a little shoring up, and I plan to do what I can to help out.

    A principal/teacher I had a very long time ago said some things that have stuck with me. Short yet powerful. Firstly, “Your rights stop where my nose begins!” So true! And secondly, “Avoid the person who says, ‘What’s mine is mine and I will keep it; what’s yours is mine if I can get it,’” and there surely is a lot of that going around these days!

    Lastly, Marv, oh MARV! Where are you? I hope you are well and busy with other things. C’mon back when you can. It isn’t the same without you.

Comments are closed.