Author: Ian Cunningham
Co-Authors ⁄ Presenters: Donna Baines, John Shields and Wayne Lewchuk

We’re all in it together’ - Worker participation in voluntary social services during austerity


Participation in workplace decisions and contributing to the shaping of services in the predominantly female voluntary sector is the norm that most workers expect (Baines, et al, 2011). There are three kinds of participative processes in the voluntary sector. The first are formal processes, including indirect and direct participation (Marchington, 1992), embracing forms of joint decision-making through collective bargaining, and more managerially led approaches to involvement; the second is practice-professional, and embraces task participation; the third is labelled ‘affinity processes’ based on gendered notions of altruism which include workers and users shaping services (Baines, et al, 2011).
Increasing precarity has already been visited on the voluntary community sector and its workforce for the last three decades through the ‘hollowing out’ of public service provision in western industrialized countries and from the governance structures of new public management (NPM). NPM has led to purchaser – provider relations being characterised by competitive tendering, strict adherence to legalistic contracts and performance indicators, private-sector business practices, short-term funding and continued calls for efficiency, value for money and cost savings (Shields, 2014). This governance structure has, in turn, curtailed opportunities for the three processes of participation outlined above (Baines, et al, 2011).
The financial crisis of 2008 and its ongoing effects can be seen as representing one of a series of successive rounds of market-based restructuring and reform deepening tendencies of neo-liberalization and precarity for the voluntary sector and its workforce. Little is known about how these participative processes play out in the circumscribed realities of NPM, managerialism and outsourcing during a period of austerity and increased precarity for community organisations and their workers. In the light of this gap in our knowledge, this paper addresses the following questions:
What is the impact of the climate of austerity and precarity on management attitudes to worker participation in voluntary organisations?
What is the impact on the working conditions and participatory processes for voluntary sector workers?
How do workers resist further encroachments on diminishing opportunities for participation in the voluntary sector during a climate of austerity?
The paper utilizes qualitative data from two Canadian case studies, one unionised, the other non-unionised. It finds common changes to working conditions as a consequence of austerity and greater organisational precarity, including work intensification, pay cuts, reductions in hours, job insecurity, and increased reliance on forms of temporary, part-time and volunteer labour. In addition, each of the aforementioned processes of participation faced efforts by management to question their continued relevance and efficacy. To enforce and provide rationales for these changes a common management response from the two cases is to turn from participative workplace cultures and styles to a traditional unitarist management ideology (Fox, 1974). In response, workers employ a variety of collective and individual forms of resistance, with the former providing more effective means to protect working conditions.