Unions in Europe, then and now: The ETUC at 40
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is holding a major conference on Monday to mark its 40th anniversary. Peter Coldrick, for many years an ETUC Confederal Secretary before returning to the TUC as our Brussels officer, will be part of the TUC delegation to Madrid as his father, Percy Coldrick, then TSSA General Secretary, was on the TUC delegation at the ETUC founding conference in Brussels. Here, Peter reflects on 40 years of European trades unionism:
When I joined the ETUC in Brussels in 1976 the staff was barely into double figures, and we rented the second floor from the international TUC. The offices were rather grubby but located on the beautifully named ‘street of the mountain soup herbs.’ Since the organisation had been founded three years earlier it hadn’t always been easy to bring trade union national centres – and people – with different traditions together – but that was what the ETUC was created to do.
In most countries, trade unions were divided – sometimes on ideological/religious grounds, sometimes between blue and white collar. Unions in the original six EU countries shared General de Gaulle’s distrust of the UK’s European intentions, while many American trade unions would have nothing to do with the ETUC because the Italian CGIL, which had a communist history, had become a member.
Move forward 40 years and a lot has changed. The ETUC occupies a good chunk of a very modern office block, and it has a staff, together with that of its research institutes, of over 100. While there are vigorous policy debates, the line-ups have not been on the old traditional lines. The ETUC can proudly say that it is the sole representative of working people and their unions in Europe, whether from the north or south, east or west, socialist or communist, religious or not. Close to one hundred organisations are affiliated with 60 million members.
Thus, I think that our number one objective – unity – has been achieved.
Without this unity and the strength it gives, I doubt if we would have succeeded in negotiating with the employers the text of the social chapter of the 1991 Maastricht treaty, or in persuading national governments and the European institutions to agree to it – the ETUC’s biggest single accomplishment. What was obtained was very far reaching: henceforth if the Commission was considering introducing any industrial relations legislation (or indeed any social legislation generally) it had first to consult the social partners and then to give them the opportunity of themselves dealing with the issue through a collective agreement.
In the initial years, things went well. In addition to legislation on such issues as working time, the ETUC and the employers reached agreements which were converted into law (eg on parental leave, part time work and fixed contracts.) Similar agreements were also reached at the sectoral level.
However, the last 10 years or so have not been easy. Employers had been willing to negotiate partly because the alternative would have been legislation. This has now changed. There have been ideological shifts and many governments are no longer willing to hold employers to account.
There is a somewhat similar story in the other main area of ETUC activity: economic policy. In order to improve the living and working conditions of their members, trade unions know that it is not enough to get better deals from the employers. They must also convince the public authorities to pursue policies that promote growth and employment, and thus create a climate in which collective bargaining can succeed.
Again, initially things went well. Most governments accepted that in an economic and monetary union, the role of the employers and unions was crucial. If they individually or collectively ignored the new context, and negotiated settlements that failed to take into account productivity or inflation or economic conditions generally then firms/industries/countries could lose competitiveness which, with a single currency, could not be restored though devaluation.
It would be wrong to suggest that the ETUC ever sought or was given a veto over economic policy but it certainly became the norm for us to be regularly consulted. This culminated in the establishment at the turn of the century of the ‘Macroeconomic Dialogue’ where the ETUC’s top leadership met regularly the presidents of the European Central Bank and of EcoFin (the council of economic ministers), and with the Economic Commissioner.
A high point of this period was the resurrection of the goal of full employment and its inclusion in the EU’s 2000-2010 ‘Lisbon strategy’. But unfortunately it wasn’t long before low points took over. Although the initial response to the banking and debt crisis that started in 2007-8 was Keynesian this didn’t last. Austerity took over as the commanding objective – as in the 1930s. And, as then, it has made things worse.
Where is the ETUC headed? Are the conservatives right in saying that trade unions’ days are numbered? I think not.
On the social dimension, I don’t accept that European electorates no longer want to be protected by good social policies. And thus I don’t believe that political parties have lost interest either. If this is right, the initial logic behind the social chapter will in due course reassert itself. Once employers feel that there is a head of steam behind a social measure, then rather than letting the civil servants and politicians do the drafting, they will accept negotiations with the unions as the lesser evil.
On economic policy, a cynic could argue that we got what we deserved. For years, the ETUC has called for closer economic coordination. The crisis is producing this – but the new levers are being used to promote austerity and not growth and employment as we thought would be the case. Hoist on our own petard ?
I am not so pessimistic. Our time will come, and when it does the levers of positive economic governance will be there. Dissatisfaction with austerity is growing. At the national level, things of course don’t always go our way. Our friends and allies do lose elections – but when they do, we don’t give up, or say that Britain or Germany or France should be wound up! And so with Europe. Fundamentally, I do not believe that any EU member state can overcome its problems just through the exercise of national sovereignty. Alone, countries risk becoming satellites of the USA, and perhaps in the future of China or Russia. Europe is a better choice.