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Chapter 8

Five Alternatives for West European Unionism

Richard Hyman

Introduction: the uncertain mission of European Unionism 

Attempts to redefine inherited trade union objectives and identities can prove difficult and even traumatic. Historically they have often been associated with ideological schisms in national labour movements, as in much of southern Europe during the onset of the cold war. Elsewhere, the struggle between competing union identities and ideologies was associated with bitter internal factionalism, with the victors at times excluding the losers from office or even from membership - as notably in the anti-communist witch-hunts in the United States and, less dramatically, in several countries of Northern Europe.

The closing years of the twentieth century are a time of new uncertainties regarding the trade union `mission'. Across Europe - and throughout the industrialised world - unions have faced a decade or more of hard times. The elements of the current challenge are familiar. First, a tougher competitive environment in both product and labour markets, reflected most obviously in the return to interwar levels of unemployment in many countries. Second, the continuation and in some cases acceleration of long-run transformations in economic and employment structure: the declining numerical significance of male manual workers in large manufacturing plants, coalmining, docks and railways: the dynamic sectors of early industrialisation and the traditional strongholds of most modern trade union movements. Conversely, employment is expanding in the private service sector, among white-collar and women workers, in `greenfield' sites and smaller establishments, often involving 'atypical' employment status: precisely the contexts where unions in most countries have in the past been relatively unsuccessful. These two tendencies, in combination, underlie the decline in union membership in most of Western Europe. Third, trade unions which emerged historically as actors on the local and national stage are confronted by the dynamics of a global economy and the machinations of transnational capital. Fourth, governments - even of the `left' - have increasingly pursued policies which threaten the inherited priorities and status of the unions. Fifth, unions developed as collective representatives of workers in employment, at a time when most people's social identity and life-chances reflected their position in the social organisation of production. Today's self-images and ideologies increasingly emphasise consumer rather than producer roles, individual choice rather than collective relations. Thus the question is frequently posed: can unions still sustain an identity as collective organisations of producers, or must they redefine their role in relation to individualism and consumerism?

The past: the movement towards political economism

Trade unions as substantial organisations were products of the industrial revolution, even though in some countries they evolved with no significant disjuncture from pre-capitalist artisanal associations. Initially their character and orientations reflected the circumstances of their formation: in most of Europe, brutal resistance by employers to assertions of independence and opposition on the part of the workforce, often accompanied by state repression. Such hostility in turn encouraged in trade unions militant, oppositional, sometimes explicitly anti-capitalist dispositions towards employers; and radical political attitudes which - in circumstances of restricted franchise and autocratic government - were not clearly distinguishable from revolutionary socialism. This, not surprisingly, reinforced the antagonism of the unions' opponents.

Yet trade unions survived repression; over decades, indeed generations, survival encouraged and was in turn supported by some form of accommodation. its features varied between (and often within) countries; but typically the nineteenth-century evolution saw the more successful unions marginalising or ritualising their radicalism, and seeking understandings with employers on the basis of the maxim of `a fair day's wage for a fair day's work' - a principle whose concrete meaning, as Marx noted, was determined by the operation of the laws of supply and demand.

The clearest instance of this de-radicalisation was in Britain, and underlay the Webbs' classic definition of a trade union: `a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment' (1894:1). Lenin, as is well known, was greatly influenced by the analysis of the Webbs when constructing his 1902 polemic What is To Be Done? Left to develop spontaneously, he argued, unions would become preoccupied with the defence of their members' immediate occupational interests. The tendency towards an accommodative, and typically sectional economism could be resisted only through the deliberate intervention of a revolutionary party.

The debates of a century ago became associated with a triple polarisation of trade union identities. One model sought to develop unionism as a form of anti-capitalist opposition. This was the goal of a succession of movements of the left: radical social-democracy, syndicalism, communism. Despite substantial differences of emphasis - and often bitter internecine conflicts - the common theme of all variants of this model was a priority for militancy and sociopolitical mobilisation. The mission of trade unionism, in this configuration, was to advance class interests.

A second model evolved in part as a rival to the first, in part as a mutation from it: trade unionism as a vehicle for social integration. Its first systematic articulation was at the end of the nineteenth century as an expression of social catholicism, which counterposed a functionalist and organicist vision of society to the socialist conception of class antagonism. On this ideological basis emerged in many countries a division between socialist-oriented unions and anti-socialist confessional rivals. Ironically, however, social-democratic unionism typically assumed many of the orientations of the latter, as social democracy itself shifted - explicitly or implicitly - from the goal of revolutionary transformation to that of evolutionary reform. Already in 1897 the Webbs had proclaimed their conception of unions as agencies for the gradualistic democratisation of industry; and across Europe such a programme was increasingly attractive to union leaders still proclaiming their socialist credentials but anxious to legitimate their differences with critics on the left. Despite their organisational confrontation, then, social-democratic and christian-democratic unionisms came to share significant common ideological attributes: a priority for the gradual improvement in social welfare and social cohesion, and hence a self-image as representatives of social interests.

A third model, not always clearly demarcated in practice from the second, is business unionism. Most forcefully articulated in the United States - but with variants in most English-speaking countries - this may be viewed as the self-conscious pursuit of economism. Its central theme is the priority of collective bargaining. Trade unions are primarily organisations for the representation of occupational interests, a function which is subverted if their operation is subordinated to broader sociopolitical projects: hence they must eschew political entanglements. The clearest articulation of a business union ideology is in Perlman's Theory of the Labour Movement (1928), in which he condemns the interventions of both revolutionary and reformist socialists as obstacles to the `maturity of a trade union "mentality"' founded upon workers' need for collective control of employment opportunities. Analogous arguments can be found, however, in the efforts of many continental European trade unions to assert their autonomy from the socialist parties which had engendered them; or in the sometimes tense relationship between British unions and the Labour Party, in which a strict demarcation between `politics' and `industrial relations' was often jealously asserted on both sides of the divide. The British notion of `free collective bargaining', and the German concept of Tarifautonomie, both imply that there should be at most an arms'-length relationship between the sphere of party politics and that of trade union action.

The philosophy of business unionism strongly affected the theories of `mature' trade unionism elaborated several decades ago, in particular by American sociologists and labour economists. Here, trade union radicalism was interpreted as a reflection of the social disruption of early industrialisation; the accommodative implementation of a more restrictive agenda was the normal mode of union action within stable capitalism. Exceptions could be explained either - in Perlman's terms - by the interference of politically motivated outsiders, or else by the irrational hostility of employers or governments to a modus vivendi in industrial relations.

Yet by the time that American mainstream academics were celebrating the hegemony of business unionism - and the CIA was helping establish intended AFL-CIO transplants across the globe - the model was already largely obsolete. As I have suggested

elsewhere (Hyman 1994), in the mid-twentieth century old conflicts over trade union identity were (in western Europe at least) largely transcended in practice, even if inherited organisational separation and ideological sloganising cloaked the transformation.

Even union movements which had traditionally embraced broad political ambitions, whether revolutionary or reformist, became in practice increasingly preoccupied with a collective bargaining agenda; at least insofar as employers were willing to recognise and negotiate with them. Former political identities thus became increasingly rhetorical. Yet at the same time, the autonomy of `industrial relations' in the traditional Anglo-American sense. Of the term was increasingly undermined, for the terrain of collective bargaining itself became increasingly shaped by politically driven macroeconomic policy and by legislative regulation of employment relations. Thus business unionism was no longer a realistic option either. The emergent union identity, in most countries of western Europe, might best be called political economism: unions had to focus simultaneously on collective negotiations with employers, and on influencing the broader legal and economic framework of collective bargaining. Neither element could be disconnected from the other.

It was the belated effort to embrace the logic of political economism which precipitated the controversies of the 1960s within British trade unionism. Elsewhere in Europe, redefinition of union identities came sooner and more explicitly. As the coverage of trade union representation and collective regulation of employment expanded, union negotiators were forced to take account of the macroeconomic implications of their bargaining strategies. This was particularly the case where collective bargaining was highly centralised, either through economy-wide framework negotiations or through the pace-setting role of a dominant industrial union such as IG Metall in Germany. The bargaining calculus had to incorporate the anticipated impact of settlements on labour costs and price movements, and the predictable responses of governments and central banks in terms of fiscal and monetary disciplines.

This was the context for the complex processes customarily analysed in terms of `political exchange' or `neo-corporatism'. National configurations differed considerably but, for a significant moment in the 1960s and 1970s, displayed important functional symmetries in much of Western Europe. Either through formal tripartite peak institutions, a shared normative orientation to consensual macroeconomic regulation, or an iterated experience of positive - sum bargaining outcomes (or a combination of these), some form of reciprocity occurred between union restraint in exploiting the favourable labour market context of relatively full employment, and labour-friendly (or at least labour-neutral) policies on the part of governments. This was the organisational dynamic inherent in the consolidation of the `Keynesian welfare state'.

In the decades of post-war economic stability and expansion, political economism appeared to be the basis for an essentially progressive mode of interest representation. The environment of trade union action was more favourable than in any previous historical epoch: sustained growth and relatively tight labour markets created a margin for regular improvements in pay and other terms of the employment contract. For a generation of

union members and officials, real improvements became the expected outcome of each bargaining round. And concurrently, political exchange appeared to assist the enhancement of the `social wage' through government action. (The growth of employment in public services, it may be added, helped compensate for the declining numbers in many traditional industries, and provided a fertile recruiting ground for trade unions). In most of Europe, unions could be regarded as major beneficiaries of national post-war settlements and of the sociopolitical dynamics which these had set in train.

The future: alternative trade union identities

To an important extent, the dilemmas currently besetting European unions stem from a crisis of political economism. Since the advent of the global economic crisis of the 1970s, the terrain of collective bargaining has been transformed. The margin for real improvements has diminished or disappeared; as employers attempt desperately to restructure and economise, industrial relations has become the arena for different varieties of concession bargaining. Almost as a parody of the `new demands' of the 1970s, the rhetoric of humanisation and industrial democracy has been transmuted into recipes for harnessing (core) workers within the managerial logic of corporate competitiveness in hard times. Political exchange has likewise become a process of concession bargaining at the level of the state: governments and employers' organisations are increasingly prepared to sustain unions' status as national interlocutors only to the extent that they endorse, and thus help legitimise, deflationary macroeconomic policies and the dismantling of significant elements in the post-war edifice of state welfare.

These developments put in question the consolidated post-war mode of trade union representation. Unions which based their membership appeal on their capacity to negotiate regular improvements in returns to labour now find themselves forced to assent in the freezing or even reduction in real wages; those which emphasised job protection can do little more than negotiate the pace of job losses and the rate of compensation. At the level of the state, meanwhile, those union movements which stressed their influence on progressive government policies can at best limit the severity of their reversal. In each case, the predictable outcome is a variety of manifestations of rank-and-file disaffection and disenchantment.

The unravelling of post-war political economism seems to create a polarisation of options: some which involve narrower and more particularistic forms of economism, others implying a broader and more generalising political agenda. Even if many of the elements of the `new demands' of previous decades have lost their plausibility in the face of intensified competitive pressures, can unions successfully address areas of experience and aspiration within the working class which they have traditionally ignored; and can they simultaneously respond to the need for `conscious politicisation of the diverse domains of traditional and non-traditional bargaining policy' (Altvater and Mahnkopf 1993:263)?

The (re)construction of the interests and agenda of trade unionism confronts two fundamental sets of choices: whether the focus of representation is confined primarily to the arena of work and employment, or whether broader social concerns are addressed; and whether the orientation is primarily collective or individual. Combining these two choices (and ignoring the fact that actually existing unions do not normally adopt clear-cut, polarised strategic orientations) we may identify four key definitions of trade union constituencies.

A focus on collective interests at work necessarily involves a concern with social relations and conditions in production. Individual work-related interests centre around the terms of the immediate contract of employment, but may also extend to long-run career trajectories.

Collective interests in society can in principle encompass all issues on the social agenda, but most obviously the roles, involvements and requirements of workers outside the employment relationship. Individual interests in society, as addressed by trade unions, involve primarily the worker as consumer in the marketplace.

Each focus of trade union representation may be pursued through strategies and power resources which are consensual and collaborative, or which involve oppositional or autonomous action within a zero-sum perspective. Thus producer interests may be advanced either through a positive-sum co-operation in managerial decision-making, or through independently imposed job controls. It can be noted that craft and professional unionism has often combined elements of both autonomous and consensual approaches: the principle of producer discretion has been treated as far as possible as non-negotiable, but on the basis that the autonomous application of specialist expertise best serves the interests of the employer and/or client. The worker's interests as `human capital' may be advanced through militant wage bargaining, and imposed restraints on the employer's ability to hire and fire; or through such mechanisms as profit-sharing and `human resource development'. The co-operative representation of citizenship interests is encapsulated in the continental European notion of social partnership; traditions of class struggle and social mobilisation represent the opposite pole. Finally, unions may attempt to serve the worker as consumer either by participating within a system of market relations which is otherwise unchallenged, acting simply as an alternative supplier of goods or services; or by attempting to transform the market itself - the initial aspiration at least of consumer co-operatives in many countries.

These alternative strategic orientations to each focus of representation - together with a variety of possible combinations - offer a considerable repertoire of alternative trade union identities. Empirically, however, there are five which appear particularly significant in contemporary Europe.

The first type is characteristic of a form of collectivism oriented to the relatively advantaged occupations within the evolving labour market: those whose distinctive expertise provides scarcity value within the reconstituted social and detailed division of labour. Such occupations encompass skilled production and service workers - particularly those associated with advanced technology - who often straddle the conventional manual/white-collar divide; and a variety of old and new professions. Exclusive representation can appear a means of best exploiting strategic labour market power, without the need to `dilute' distinctive interests within a bargaining sector covering other, numerically preponderant, occupational groups. Exclusive collective organisation of occupations pre-dates capitalist industrialisation and - many would argue genuine trade unionism; it is significant that the name gilde has been adopted by separatist representation of some elite groups in contemporary Italy.

Separatism can assume many forms: elite interests can be pursued either in parallel, or in opposition, to those of other groups. The dominant current tendency, however, is clearly divisive: the guild model is typically a reaction against the narrowing of pay differentials and levelling of employment status in previous decades, and also a strategy to monopolise the restricted opportunities for improvement in hard times. To this extent, the success of the guild model spells failure for trade unionism as a broader representative movement.

The second model assumes an inevitable displacement of collectivism by individualism. Though presented by some advocates as a distinctively new trade union identity, this has indeed an ancient heritage: the earliest unions developed out of societies providing `friendly benefits' to distinct occupational groups. There is, however, a variable relationship between individual services and collective identity. The Webbs referred to the role of such benefits in nineteenth-century British trade unionism as `the method of mutual insurance', precisely because the system enhanced collective strength by offering material support to individuals with common work-related interests. Or again: the traditional emphasis of many unions on providing advocacy and counsel to individual workers in dispute with their employers has a collective significance, since it addresses the vulnerability which is part of employees' shared experience in the employment relationship. This is quite different from the type of service organisation whose sole or dominant identity is to provide commercial services to discrete customers; it is not clear in what sense such an organisation remains a trade union.

The next model adapts to the altered balance of power between unions and employers, and the structural pressures on firms to survive despite intensified competition. Here, the co-operative dimension of intermediary unionism is reinforced; the union becomes part of a `productivity coalition' (Windolf 1989) with management, collaborating in policies to enhance competitive performance. Again, such an orientation is not new: trade unions have rarely welcomed the bankruptcy of their members' employers. In Germany, `company egoism' has long been recognised as a countervailing force to union efforts to build cross-employer solidarity; while in Italy, microcorporatism' or `microconcertation' (Regini 1991) has been much discussed. But in severe economic circumstances, company-level productivity coalitions may imply a competitive underbidding of either job protection or conditions of employment (except perhaps for a privileged core group), with unionism organisationally reinforcing the fault lines of intra-and international divisions of employee interests. Fragmentation into Japanese-style company unions would be the ultimate logic of such a process.

The model of trade unionism as interlocutor of government, has a firm basis in countries where state benefits for unemployment, sickness and retirement are explicitly regarded as elements in a `social wage', in the determination of which the unions possess all legitimate representative status. It has clear antecedents in the post-war evolution of political economism. However, the current dilemmas of political exchange as social partnership parallel, at macro level, the micro-dilemmas of productivity coalitions: do unions sustain or even enhance their external recognition only at the cost of internal representativeness, by legitimising painful policies without securing compensating benefits for their constituencies? To escape this dilemma, unions must be able to play a role in actually shaping the agenda, oriented to the specific interests they claim to represent, and with the resources necessary for independent leverage. In other words, political exchange is not viable as a self-contained sphere of action for union leaders: they can represent a constituency only if bound to it organically by the dynamics of union democracy, and they can effectively pursue a distinctive agenda only by winning popular support. This is particularly true, it may be added, when unions attempt to pursue political exchange at supranational level; the feeble results of `social dialogue' within the European Union are an inevitable reflection of a failure to mobilise informed backing among unions' own constituents.

This leads to the final model: trade unions as populist campaigning organisations. Economic interest organisation and social movement have been two of the ideal types often identified as polar opposites in the analysis of trade union character. What is significant is the degree to which, after many decades in which political economism seemed to displace strong ideological identities (and indeed when many sociologists diagnosed an `end of ideology' more generally), the campaigning model previously associated with class or populist politics is being rehabilitated. Yet the traditional tensions between interest representation and social mobilisation cannot be ignored; not least because on many key sociopolitical issues (such as curbs on environmentally damaging industries, or taxation to sustain public services) there are conflicts of interests among trade unionists themselves. Yet those unions - the majority - whose membership base is unstable and whose traditional power resources are unreliable seem impelled to embrace at least some elements of the social movement model.

Ideal types are not the same as empirical instances; no trade union movement can fully assume any of the identities outlined. What is at issue is a question of priorities and strategic choices, as European unions are beset by the contradictions of political economism in hard times. For the most part, regrettably, such choices appear to be taken reactively and opportunistically; most European labour movements appear as objects rather than as subjects of contemporary history.


Altvater, E. and Mahnkopf, B. 1993. Gewerkschaften vor der europaischen Herausforderung. Munster: Westfalisches Dampfboot

Hyman, Richard. 1994. `Changing trade union identities and strategies', in Richard Hyman and Anthony Ferner (eds), New Frontiers in European Industrial Relations, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 108-39.

Perlman, Selig. 1928. The Theory of the Labour Movement. New York: Macmillan.

Regini, M. 1991. Confini mobili. Bologna: Il Mulino.

Webb, Sydney and Beatrice Webb. 1897. Industrial Democracy. London: Longman.

Windolf, P. 1989. `Productivity Coalitions and the Future of European Corporatism', Industrial Relations, Vol. 28, pp.1-20.

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