Home > TAMING THE UNIONS - The mirage of a social Europe (by C. GOBIN)

TAMING THE UNIONS - The mirage of a social Europe (by C. GOBIN)

by Open-Publishing - Monday 30 May 2011

Edito Trade unions Europe

France and Italy have undertaken to introduce a 35-hour working week. But this step forward has been greeted with serious reservations by most European Union governments, and with downright hostility by employers and heads of finance. The key word is now flexibility. But it remains to be seen at this month’s European Council summit what hope there really is for a "social Europe". What is sure is that European trades unions have been hopelessly slow off the mark.

by Corinne Gobin

The European Council’s extraordinary meeting on employment, to be held on 21 November, will provide a good indication of the way the European community is taking shape. This meeting was arranged at the Amsterdam summit in June as a special favour to Lionel Jospin, in return for an assurance that he would accept the budgetary stability pact: a meeting that is not required to produce results, in exchange for a firm commitment to toe the Bonn line on the budget.

The French government has nevertheless taken the courageous step of opting for a 35-hour week by the year 2000. The announcement has been greeted with horror by employers and the right-wing opposition, but the measure is part of an attempt to fight unemployment. Officially, this now stands at three million, but a disturbing report just published (1) puts the real number out of work or working part-time at seven million. In the rest of Europe, Mr Jospin’s brave decision has so far met with no response except in Italy, where Romano Prodi’s centre-left government has also undertaken to introduce a 35-hour week in 2001, in return for support from the Communist Refoundation Party.Elsewhere, reducing the working week means part-time work. In the Netherlands, for example, 37.3% of the workforce is employed part-time. There, as in the United Kingdom, this means that the official unemployment figures do not reflect the real scale of the problem. Any suggestion of a reduction in working hours without a commensurate drop in wages is received at best with serious reservations and at worst with outright condemnation by most European Union governments, and with implacable hostility by the employers’ organisations and in financial circles.

The remedies for unemployment adopted almost everywhere and recommended by the European Commission are altogether different. They can be summed up in one word: flexibility. Flexibility in wages, in working conditions, in systems of social protection. But not in salaries paid to top executives or returns on investments.Once this policy is accepted, the economy, the currency and the fate of the working population will all be market-led and run on autopilot, to use a favourite Bundesbank formula. If this approach is confirmed at the Luxembourg summit, we shall know that the European social community is destined to remain a poor relation in the new Europe and, incidentally, that Mr Jospin was sold a pup at Amsterdam.

In the face of this neoliberal consensus on a new version of the iron rule, the counter-offensives mounted by the employees’ organisations appear somewhat primitive. The top people’s trade unionism practised by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in Brussels is no substitute for coordinated social struggle among the member states.

(1) Henry Guaino, Robert Castel, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Jacques Freyssinet, "Chômage, le cas français", a report from the General Commission for the Plan submitted on 20 October 1997.


The European Union establishment is becoming increasingly vocal on the subject of employment. To prove that it is just as much on their minds as the single currency and the budgetary stability pact, the heads of state and government of the Fifteen decided at the Amsterdam European Council on 16 and 17 June 1997 to hold an extraordinary meeting in Luxembourg on 21 November to consider the problem. The moment the summit was announced, a number of them, including the Belgian prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, hastened to forestall any possible misunderstanding. The European leaders, he said, were simply going to "talk" about employment. Governments could not create jobs by decree. The most they could do was provide the framework for business and industry to create them. The same was true at European level and he had always maintained that it was not really a good idea to hold a special summit on employment. It would merely raise hopes that were bound to be disappointed (1).

When the Amsterdam European Council "reaffirms the importance it attaches to employment", workers have every reason to be suspicious. The sole objective, fast becoming an obsession, is to increase "flexibility", leaving employers free to offer insecure and ill-paid jobs instead of good ones. True, one of the Union’s objectives under the Treaty of Amsterdam is "to promote a high level of employment" but another, more important one is to encourage "a high degree of competitiveness and convergence of economic performance". It has nothing to say about the quality of the employment to be "promoted" or about stability, social protection or guaranteeing work-related social rights. On the contrary! It states that the workforce must be "adaptable" and the labour markets capable of reacting quickly to economic change. The resolution adopted at that summit recommends that, to encourage the "creation of more jobs ... social security schemes should be modernised ... and systems of taxation and social protection adjusted to promote employment".

And the reality behind these seemingly innocuous phrases? Deregulation of all work-related social rights, docking employees’ indirect earnings in the form of employers’ social security contributions which are to go back into the employers’ pockets and, eventually, reducing social security to the bare minimum required for subsistence. The policy document issued by the European Commission on 1 October in preparation for the extraordinary European Council meeting in Luxembourg is absolutely clear on the subject. It is entirely preoccupied with "flexibility", "employability", "mobility", part-time working and - as the crowning touch -reorganising education to meet the "needs" of the labour market.

Democratic "deconstruction"

Thus, in the name of employment, the Community authorities are continuing to pursue the very economic policies that for more than twenty years have been responsible for creating a large pool of unemployment, destroying the security and unity of the workforce, reducing the power of the unions in Europe and offering investors huge incentives, to the detriment of wage-earners. This ultra-conservative campaign has carried all before it. The process of dismantling democracy, tried out initially in the member states in the form of austerity plans and orchestrated in masterly fashion at European level in the 1985 plan for the internal market, has encountered no genuine, concerted opposition from the workers’ organisations.

And yet the idea of establishing trade union structures on a European scale goes back a long way, to 1945 and the period of post-war reconstruction. The unions were deeply affected by the conflicts of the cold war, notably the issue of whether Europe should accept American aid under the Marshall Plan. Opinion was divided and attitudes to the plans for a European community were largely subsumed into the wider context of the fight for or against communism. For the leaders of the communist unions these plans represented a political and economic attack on the Soviet Union, while the social democrat and Christian democrat union leaders saw them as an instrument for improving the workers’ standard of living and dissuading them from any revolutionary ideas they might harbour. They also thought the Community would pave the way for a stable democracy in which the non-communist unions would enjoy a privileged position as the recognised voice of labour in negotiations with the political authorities. In their eyes, therefore, the building of Europe would be closely linked with democracy.

Whenever a new supra-national or European institution was established, the social democrat and Christian democrat wings of the union movement both sent permanent representatives to the new institutions. Examples were the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), a forerunner of the OECD, set up to administer the Marshall plan; the Benelux Economic Union; the Ruhr Control Area; the European Productivity Agency; the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). This pattern was to be repeated in 1958 when the six original member states established the European Economic Community. However, the union leaders were soon to realise that another ethos was at work in this organisation. Their privileged position as negotiators was no longer recognised by most of the new European politicians and they were to be increasingly excluded from the decision-making process established by the Treaty of Rome, under which the Council of Ministers was responsible for the day-to-day running of Community affairs. Their aim was now to recover lost ground (2) by combining their forces to better effect on a Western European scale.

The result was the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), founded in 1973 and originally comprising all the social democrat unions of Western Europe, very soon to be joined by their Christian democrat counterparts and even by the communist unions, as they gradually distanced themselves from Moscow. The ETUC operated a very open recruitment policy, accepting many of the organisations representing more specialised groups and, after 1995, unions from a number of Eastern European countries. Its membership now extends to 61 national confederations from 28 countries, as well as 14 European federations representing different sectors. The last major body to remain outside the organisation is the largest French union, the Confédération générale du travail (CGT), which has been vetoed by the other French unions. The ETUC can thus claim to represent, through the national unions, some 54 million individual members.

This regional organisation, run on a more or less unitarian basis, is certainly a step forward for European and international trade unionism, which has too often been divided, but it is clear that it has not yet succeeded in shifting the balance of forces in the European Union, which is still tipped in favour of the employers and the policy-makers. Nor has it stopped the gradual erosion of union power at national level. Why is this?

Out of touch at the top

Trade unionism as practised in the European community is still very much a matter for the leaders and experts. It operates at the top, and no serious attempt has so far been made to mobilise the international membership at grass roots level. This is still very much in the realms of virtual reality (3). Union leaders prided themselves on the privileged position they enjoyed in their own countries and imagined that things would be the same in a wider political arena. They saw themselves as the personal embodiment of union power and thought they could single-handedly avoid the need to carry on the struggle in several countries at once.

As a result, European trade unionism amounted to no more than a series of mini-embassies to the EEC and then to the Union institutions. The unions developed a symbiotic relationship with this new environment and the prevailing technocratic ethos in Brussels and Luxembourg, where all business was conducted between top people and experts. They failed to establish the necessary links between the various levels of the national union hierarchy and the European organisation and made no attempt to foster in the workforce an active sense of themselves as Europeans. It was felt that the spread of European works councils in firms with establishments in more than one country could, in time, encourage the emergence of an active transnational movement.

Thus, for almost forty years, union representatives in the centres of power where Community decisions are taken have been working in complete political isolation. There were no European political parties as such and this deprived them of the political links that had proved so essential at national level. Cut off from the grass roots and with no transnational reference points to guide them, they gradually - to a greater or lesser extent - absorbed the ideology of the Eurocrats. The process was accelerated by the rising wave of neoliberal ideas within the social democrat and Christian democrat parties. An additional factor over the last ten years or so has been the European union movement’s growing financial dependence on the Community institutions. Jacques Delors played a key role in this new development during his ten-year term as president of the Commission (1985-1994).

Political power in Europe is essentially technocratic. As soon as states have reached an agreement in the Council of Ministers, the European authorities use their administrative powers to defuse any potential conflict. Government is no longer concerned with people but with things, and debate is replaced by discussion of technical rules. All the natural outlets for social conflict are blocked by the irresistible advance of the joint management culture. This is what is happening in the European Parliament, where the procedure of co-decision with the Council in various areas is steadily undermining the separation of powers.

The same process is at work in the methods used to consult the unions. They are, in fact, being told how to think. The "European social dialogue", so dear to Mr Delors, has therefore served mainly to persuade union leaders over a period of ten years gradually to accept the constraints of the market - in other words, to embrace the policies of austerity, competitiveness, privatisation and flexibility. This is what social partnership (4) means at European level.

In June 1997 the ETUC ratified a framework agreement with the European employers’ representatives on part-time work. The union succeeded in getting the principle of non-discrimination between the conditions of employment of full-time and part-time employees incorporated into the agreement. But at what a cost! Both parties are required to do all they can to promote part-time work. In these circumstances, even if the principle of non-discrimination was established, it would only make sense if it was applied right across the board, that is to say if it included social security rights. But these are entirely a matter for the member states and any decision taken in the Council of Ministers must be unanimous!

The systematic encouragement of part-time work - with pay to match
 undoubtedly contributes to the impoverishment of workers. It also consigns to oblivion the unions’ hard-won status, achieved by more than a century of struggle, as agents in the redistribution of wealth. If working hours were reduced with no loss of wages, employers would be obliged to pay their workers more and their shareholders less. Can the unions afford to allow themselves to be reduced to the position of overseeing the impoverishment of the workforce (5)? Within the ETUC, the delegates of the Netherlands and Italian unions and the French CFDT are the most vociferous supporters of the new flexible trade unionism.

Ever since the Treaty of Rome was signed forty years ago, the European trade union movement has been awaiting the advent of a European social community. The ETUC is convinced that the construction of a European community must be for the good in the end, no matter how hard the road may be, and is giving qualified support to EMU (Economic and Monetary Union). But it is also seeking a review of the priorities, to ensure that the social aspects of European affairs are given as much time and attention as the economic and financial aspects. Its original commitment to the building of Europe has constantly inhibited its union reflexes whenever collective rights were challenged by the grand plan for an ultra-liberal Europe. So, the private sector has been able to take over with impunity, and without any significant opposition from the unions in areas of the public sector where the profit motive had been held in check to ensure that each individual could exercise his full rights as a citizen.

It is hopelessly naive to imagine that a little social oasis could one day be created in a desert dominated by market forces and free trade. Already EMU, with its criteria and management methods, together with the budgetary stability pact signed in Amsterdam, is having the same impact in Europe as structural adjustment plans in the third world. It is keeping the workforce in order.

A social Europe is inextricably bound up with the struggle for democratic government. In all the countries of Europe, social rights were gradually recognised at the end of the 19th century after a long struggle for effective political democracy. In the same way, a democratic Europe cannot be built by soft talk and tinkering with the treaties.

* Researcher at the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels, where she submitted a thesis in 1996 on the history of relations between the trade unions and the European Community authorities from 1958-91.

November 1997

Translated by Barbara Wilson
More by Corinne Gobin

(1) Le Soir, Brussels, 21-22 June 1997.
(2) The unions had in fact exercised considerable influence in the ECSC but their power in the member states was effectively eroded when political authority passed from the states to the Community and then to the Union.
(3) Could the Renault-Vilvorde affair be the first sign of transnational mobilisation? See Corinne Gobin and Jean-Marie Pernot, "Le syndicalisme européen : ce grand inconnu", Politique, La Revue, no 5, July-September 1997.
(4) The Commission’s recognition of the unions as partners is highly ambiguous. They are increasingly being consulted as experts in social matters and not as the official representatives of social and political claims.
(5) A substantial collective reduction in working hours with no loss of wages was one of the ETUC’s key claims in 1976.