In principle, as is said for services more generally, the link between managing the work force and operative service performance is particularly strong in aviation, especially in airports serving as the logistical hubs for passengers as well as freight. On top, sound employment relations and working conditions are connected to service processes that require a high level in terms of quality, security and safety standards in the air and at airports all around the world.

Over the years, and pushed by initiatives for deregulation and privatisation such as the EU ground-handling directive (1996), the world of aviation and airports has been subject nevertheless to a disintegration of formerly integrated public service provision through the subcontracting of services. Resulting from this organisational restructuring, many airport authorities have turned their vertically integrated organisations into “service delivery networks” (SDN).

Through these organisational changes, employment relations became complex ‘multi-employer relations’. As a result, in various parts of these networks, but especially for workers in ground-handling operations, working and employment conditions have deteriorated, which finds expression in time pressure, high workloads, low wages, high turnover, less unionisation and low levels of worker participation. But, how do the actors involved enact these structural and strategic changes in an institutional setting traditionally known for its social partnership-style industrial relations, usually safeguarding what might be called industrial peace?

To find answers to this question, our study focused on two large airports in Germany. As a brief look into the media and press reveals, German air traffic – in the sky as well as on the ground – has been challenged in recent years by labour disputes of all sorts, which put the assumptions of industrial peace in jeopardy. Likewise, both airports under study provide ample evidence of how the authorities at these airports constitute the core of SDN and orchestrate these networks. At the same time, these network orchestrators face a strategic trade-off between short-term labour cost reductions and more adversarial employment relations. Apart from coinciding with a deterioration in working conditions for service workers, the handling of this trade-off depends on managers’ and worker representatives’ commitment to inter-organisational collaboration across the SDN.

While trade unions and work councils initially continued with social partnership-type practices at both airports, the more adversarial management practices for enacting the network-oriented restructuring caused a fragmentation on the workers’ side and increased the conflict potential. However, our study also reveals that the very agency of management as well as of worker representatives in the enactment of SDN makes a difference, as it oscillates – not only across airports but also over time – between more partnership-like and more conflictive practices.

The re-establishment of social partnership practices results from learning among management and worker representatives. Hence, network restructuring is interpreted as a political process – with divergent outcomes for labour-management collaboration. On a theoretical level, our study contributes to overcoming the shortcomings of structural explanations of network-oriented restructuring and its effects on working conditions and employment relations; it does so by adopting a practice-based perspective that emphasises the duality of structure and agency and identifies scope for action. With respect to managerial and employment relations practice, one may conclude that both actors are well served by taking the multi-employer nature of networked service delivery more seriously and engaging with the challenge of redefining their relationships appropriately in the face of multi-employer relations.

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Markus Helfen is professor of human resource management and employment relations in the department of organisation and learning at the Faculty of Business & Management, University of Innsbruck, Austria. He researches in the fields of employment relations, HRM and organisation theory with a focus on collective action and institutional work. Current topics and projects include managing work in inter-organisational settings, global labour standards, and sustainable HRM and employment relations. Markus has published in leading management and industrial relations journals.

Jörg Sydow is professor of management and chair for inter-firm cooperation at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. He serves or has served on the editorial boards of leading academic journals and is currently a senior editor of Organization Studies. He co-authored two recently published books: Managing and Working in Project Society – Institutional Challenges of Temporary Organizations (Cambridge University Press), and Managing Inter-organizational Relations – Debates and Cases (Palgrave-Macmillan).

Carsten Wirth is professor of studies of work, HRM and organisation at the University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt. His research interests cover industrial relations, and network and organisation theory. He is co-editor of Industrielle Beziehungen – The German Journal of Industrial Relations. Recently, he co-authored articles in Work, Employment & Society as well as in the British Journal of Industrial Relations.