The paper aims to examine the theory that trade unions' functions in a transitional economy are characterised by “path dependency”.
The research is based on case studies of employment relations in enterprises operating in Moldova. The approach is realist (critical materialism). An ethnographic approach is taken to analysing social relations in three locally and foreign‐owned companies in the clothing sector. The case studies explore union responses to managerially driven re‐structuring.
The research established that these forms of trade unionism exhibit considerable heterogeneity within continued commitment to their welfare functions. This may indicate that the “integrating collectivist” form does not presage a new “path” for Moldovan trade unionism but does demonstrate the bounded diversity within the existing paradigm.
The research studies the unionised sector. Future research might look into non‐unionised Greenfield sites. The research has established that networks are being reconstructed between workers. Whether this will generate a new path for unionism and challenge managerial control remains to be established.
Findings indicate that the welfare function corresponds to workers' historic expectations and may provide a base for unions from which other, more conflictual activity may be conducted. Conversely, it suggests that attention to local norms is essential for employer's strategies aimed at combining efficiency with quality and fairness.
The research unveils the failures of employment relations' institutions to address women workers needs in the area calling for all stakeholders to act on this issue to prevent negative consequences (poverty, migration, turnover).
Institutionalist research on transition has stressed continuity and neglected agency. This research asks how far actors have wished and have been able to reconstitute institutions across time. To this end it has established dialogues with workers and managers making comprehensive sense of their views. Findings are relevant to unionists and employers as well as other stakeholders in transformation societies.
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