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Workers’ Interests in Times of Crisis 1929 – 1973/74 – 2008 ff.
International Conference
Berlin, 15—16 June 2012

Organized by Friedrich-Ebert Foundation and International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH)


At regular intervals, capitalism is shaken by crises. Consequently, it seems natural to relate them to each other and to provide them with a historical dimension. Also the present economic and financial crisis has been related to past crises of the 20th century in numerous respects. The past can provide us with a valuable interpretative framework because our experience of crises and our expectation horizons have become embedded in our collective memory. Assessment of present-day developments in the light of past experience may produce common structural characteristics, while at the same time entailing a risk of leading us astray in our interpretation of contemporary phenomena. There is a real danger of constructing path determinants which do not really exist, and of establishing continuities where discontinuity is the reality, all of which may lead to plausible but invalid conclusions about ways in which present-day crises could or should be handled.

The purpose of the conference planned is to historicize those spaces of experience and expectation horizons which result from the interpretation of past crises and which are used to interpret present-day phenomena. Special attention should be paid to the political relevance and declining effectiveness and clout of workers’ organizations in Europe and the USA. The crisis periods which are often denominated by catchwords like The ‘Great Crash’ of 1929, the Oil Crisis and the ‘Structural Break’ of 1973/74 and the present economic and financial market crisis of 2008 and the following years should serve as points of reference.

Economic crises in a global context have contributed to radical structural change, and have always had an impact on workers’ living conditions. The Depression after 1929 prepared the ground for authoritarian crisis management strategies at the end of which one outcome was the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. As a result of the crisis in the 1970s, there was a slow-down in post-Fordist transition of industry which was reflected in progressing ‘tertiarization’ of society as well as in a shift of societal models allowing neo-liberal patterns of interpretation to assert themselves. It is not yet possible to make a final assessment of the status and impacts of the economic and financial crisis of 2008sqq., however we may expect it to change working and production regimes in Europe and North America profoundly. Similarly, those bodies which represent workers’ interests will be severely affected.

More than anything, diachronic comparative studies of workers’ interests in times of crisis constitute a desideratum. Therefore, in addition to conference papers concentrating on a single period, contributions discussing at least two crisis periods are of special interest. In this way it will be possible to fathom which types of experience and interpretations relating to one crisis have also become active in perceptions of other crises.

The following topics present themselves for further analysis:

Crisis perception, crisis discourse, crisis atmosphere: Who defines when a crisis is on? How does semantics change and what control over interpretation is exercised by different players?
Crisis and society: What is the relationship between developmental optimism and a crisis atmosphere? To what extent is it possible to see, in particular, the 1970s as a caesura? To what extent did crisis scenarios with corresponding ‘reform’ discourse become a regularly occurring phenomenon? How do crises impact on different social strata? Is it possible to discern gender specific differences concerning the effects of any crisis?
Structural options, strategies and crisis management: How do various groups of players (trade unions, political parties, employers, but also governments, media, social movements, expert bodies, rating agencies) react to crises? What observations can be made at trans-national, national, and regional levels?
Conflict and consensus – the welfare state in crisis: What status can be attributed to adversarial versus corporatist behaviour in social partnership strategies for overcoming a crisis on the part of trade unions and employers’ associations?
Mobilization during a crisis: What types of interaction exist between the direct effects of a crisis such as unemployment, political responses, for instance the so-called roll-back of social insurance, and the development in trade union enrolment? How does such a development impact on trade union organizational power, negotiation strength and interpretative control?
Crises as systemically inherent or as an ideological instrument: Are crises an inherent and necessary component in the systemic dynamics of capitalism or do they chiefly serve as intimidation scenarios for the implementation of authoritarian or neo-liberal policies to cut back the welfare-state achievements?
Production regime and crisis: In which ways do crises spark a change in production regimes (the rise and transformation of Fordism, computerization and the emergence of the network society, rationalization and automation)?
Transformation of work regimes in times of crisis: To what extent is it possible for political forces to guide and manoeuvre the economy in times of crisis?

In terms of concepts and methods, contributions should be firmly founded in social and economic history while being open to the approaches of modern cultural history. Seen from this perspective, papers should be source-based and should use an interdisciplinary and scholarly approach to the crises of 1929, 1973/74, and 2008sqq.

The conference will be held at the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation in Berlin. The languages of the conference are English and German. Proposals for papers must be submitted not later than 15 March 2012 at Johannes Platz. Papers should not exceed 3,000 characters.

Conference chair and organizers:

Archiv der sozialen Demokratie
Referat „Public History“
Projekt „Jüngere und jüngste Gewerkschaftsgeschichte“
Dr. des. Johannes Platz
Godesberger Allee 149
53175 Bonn
Tel. +49 228 883-8072
Fax + 49 228 883-9204

Archiv der sozialen Demokratie
Referat „Public History“
Dr. Meik Woyke
Godesberger Allee 149
53175 Bonn
Tel. +49 228 883-8068
Fax +49 228 883-9209

International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH)
Univ. Doz. Dr. Berthold Unfried
Wipplingerstraße 6-8
A-1010 Wien
Tel. +43 1 22 89 469-316
Fax +43 1 22 89 469-391