Trade Unions' responses to Industry 4.0 amid corporatism and resistance

2023 – The aim of this paper – by four Italian authors – is to shed light on the paths, directions, and ensuing degrees of technological adoption fostered by trade unions or, alternatively, forms of resistance thereof. The authors executed an empirical study in the so called ‘Italian Motor-Valley’, a distinctive technological district located in the outskirts of Bologna, Italy, specialised in the engineering and automotive industry. They find that the introduction of Industry 4.0 technology opens up a new space of action for trade unions in influencing firms’ decisions on technological adoption. However, this new scope can have ambiguous effects, depending on how the process is governed. On the one hand, trade unions’ involvement in said decisions might end up fostering corporatist tendencies, favouring the alignment of workers’ and managers’ objectives. On the other hand, such a major involvement can help both recomposing old forms of dualism and revitalising workers’ role in the crucial issue of work organisation.

Main research questions

Have TUs played a role in managing the process of technological change and, if so, to what extent? In which respect have TUs facilitated, or prevented, the adoption of new organisational practices? To what extent are TUs empowered by new grounds of bargaining and able to widen the represented workforce composition (e.g. including white-collar workers)? To answer these questions, these interviews aim to detect the emergence of organisational practices typical of the lean I4.0 transformation, namely empowerment of the workforce (e.g. the designation of team-leaders), practices of job-rotation and mechanisms of active worker participation (e.g. teamwork), training practices, monetary and non-monetary incentive schemes and career opportunities



The analysis is based primarily on semi-structured interviews carried out within four automotive firms located in the outskirts of Bologna. The four cases represent examples of companies that adopt practices, systems, and models ranging from the Italian family business (Bonfiglioli), Japanese Toyotism (Cesab[1]Toyota), a mix of Taylorism and co-determination (Ducati), up to the instance most similar to the experiences of German “Mitbestimmung” (Lamborghini).

The researchers had semi-structured interviews with individuals and in focus groups of workers, TU representatives, managers and IT-specialists.


Some of the conclusions

Bargaining over technology becomes a new crucial area of negotiation, which has been dismissed, for historical reasons, for a long time. In this respect, Industry 4.0 technology paves the way to a revitalisation of TUs. The research findings, revitalise the importance of trade unions and, in general, of workers’ organisations as both a channel to favour transformative processes – say technological or organisational innovations – and the only remaining collective protection against forms of pervasive control, excessive saturation of working time, and overtime activities. Against a pure functionalist approach, the study reveals that even in the absence of a strong corporatist culture, trade unions can improve working conditions and direct technical change towards more inclusive and less predatory methods of implementation.



Cirillo, V., Rinaldini, M., Staccioli, J., & Virgillito, M. E. (2023). Trade unions’ responses to Industry 4.0 amid corporatism and resistance. PSL Quarterly Review76(305), 91–120.

And see an interview with the first author by Peter Totterdill in Bridges 5.0 Newsletter December 2023: How trade unions can influence the adoption of new technologies – Bridges 5.0 (