Radical Unions in Europe and the Future of Collective Interest Representation

by Heather Connolly (Volume editor) Lefteris Kretsos (Volume editor) Craig Phelan (Volume editor)
©2014 Monographs VI, 264 Pages


This book analyses contemporary trends in radical unionism in Europe. It contains nine country case-studies that probe the limits and possibilities of trade union renewal with a focus on radical activity. The editors follow a broad definition of radical unionism, including trade union organisations that can be characterised as radical either in terms of ideology and political identity or in terms of organising and mobilising activity. The ongoing economic crisis and consequent austerity measures, and employers’ strategies for increasing labour market flexibility have encouraged the deregulation of capitalism in Europe. The question this book asks is whether radicalised unionism, political action and grassroots activism present opportunities for union renewal and collective interest representation in this economic context. This question is examined in nine national contexts with diverse industrial relations frameworks and trade unions. The editors assess the degree to which we are witnessing the emergence of ‘radical political unionism’ as an alternative model of trade unionism in Europe, focused on class struggle, engagement in social movement activity beyond the workplace, and politicised union strategies aligned to new left-wing political formations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • The Future of European Unions: Radical Prospects?
  • Towards Radical Political Unionism?
  • Trade Union Radicalism in France: The Renewal of Radicalism in the Context of Crisis and Austerity?
  • Britain: Striking Unionism With a Political Cutting Edge
  • The Independent Workers’ Union: Class, Nation and Oppositional Labour Movements in Ireland from 1900 to the Celtic Tiger
  • Radical Trade Unionism in Spain: The Re-Invention and Re-Imagination of Autonomy and Democracy Within and Around the Union Movement During the Past Century
  • Radical Unionism in Italy - Back to the Future: Fiom and Chainworkers
  • The Wind of Austerity in the Sails of Radicalism: The Greek Example
  • Radical Trade Unionism in Portugal: Between Maximalist Vanguardism and Ongoing Radicalization
  • Radical Trade Unions in Poland: The Meanings and Mechanisms of Union Radicalisation in a Post-Socialist Capitalism
  • Hungarian Unions: Toward Assuming Political Roles
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index


The Future of European Unions: Radical Prospects?


Europe is the birthplace of trade unionism. It is here that the earliest trade unions emerged from craft guilds and later mutual aid societies. As early as the sixteenth century craftsmen in small shops banded together in fraternal associations to define and protect their skills, to enforce apprenticeship rules, to discuss politics and other weighty matters, and to cease work when their perceived rights and privileges were challenged (Chase, 2000). From the early nineteenth century, when modern trade unionism took shape, until the present day, trade unionism has been a mainstay of European economic and political history, arguably the most significant progressive force in civil society in all corners of the European continent. The ‘business unions’ that represented occupational rather than class interests and battled at the workplace against recalcitrant employers to secure better wages and working conditions; the ‘welfare unions’ that organised along class rather than occupation lines with their often radical political and social goals; the ‘social partner’ unions that participated in tripartite bodies in an effort to define national labour and social policies that would benefit all citizens – it is here in Europe that all variations of trade unionism were first seen.

Europe is where trade unionism was first conceived to be something much more than economistic institutions to determine wages and working conditions for their own members. It is here that intellectuals and ideologues first saw that trade unionism could potentially be transformative and could radicalise social relations by serving as the vanguard of progressive change. Marxists of every stripe from Marx and Engels themselves to Lenin and Kautsky, from Rosa Luxemburg to Antonio Gramsci, ← 1 | 2 → anarcho-syndicalists, socialists, fascists – radicals of every persuasion all assessed the potentialities and the limitations of trade unionism. Each recognised and sought to harness the enormous political potential of European trade unionism, just as the trade unions themselves were creating their own political destinies. When British trade unionism sought to promote its broader social agenda, it did so by creating the Labour Party. Similarly, the major trade union federations across Europe, most notably the CGT in France and the SPD in Germany, pursued their political and social ambitions by forming close relationships with political parties.

The thirty-year period after World War II represent the ‘golden age’ of trade unionism in Europe. Although some scholars suggest that labour solidarity in these years was more mythical than real because many workers, especially ethnic minorities and women, remained outside the union fold (Moody, 1997; Hyman, 2001), few deny that trade unionism exercised economic power and political influence during these years that they could hardly imagine before the war. Across Europe between a third and two-thirds of all workers were trade union members, and political leaders accepted unions as partners in the pursuit of sustained economic growth. The post-war labour accords not only legitimised trade unions but also led to rising living standards through collective bargaining and extension agreements. Organised labour used its new clout to press for expansive social welfare legislation, and it is in these years that the vision of a Social Europe took hold (Western, 1997; Hancké, 2003). Harmonious industrial relation systems with massive ‘social partner’ trade unions in Germany and the Scandinavian countries became the ideal to which others could only aspire, but across Europe new national health systems and unemployment insurance and housing schemes stood as testimony to the progressive power wielded by trade unionism. If economic growth could be sustained, trade unionism was prepared to serve as Europe’s social conscience and to ensure that Europe’s wealth was at least to some extent redistributed.

Yet of course economic growth was not sustained. The oil shocks of the 1970s, and the rocketing inflation that followed, put an end to the thirty-year ‘golden age’. As employers sought to restructure in an effort to remain competitive in the new environment, and as governments rewrote labour laws to assist them, industrial relations became far more belligerent ← 2 | 3 → and far less conductive to the continued health of trade unionism. As early as 1978 Eric Hobsbawm warned that ‘the forward march of labour’ had been ‘halted’, although he had no idea how disastrous the following decades would prove to be (Hobsbawm, 1978). The sense that trade unionism in Europe (and elsewhere) has been marginalised, that it no longer has a significant role to play in the twenty-first century economy, has become pervasive, not just amongst employers and neoliberal politicians, but among social commentators, including some with leftist pretensions. So steep has been the decline since the 1980s that an intelligent mainstream magazine could opine without hint of exaggeration that ‘organised labour seems heading for extinction’ (The Economist, 21 September 2006).

A hollowed-out, enfeebled institutional trade unionism seemed incapable of resurrecting itself. Then came the global financial crisis in 2008 and the austerity packages that followed, and very quickly the situation appeared different. Mass protests against austerity packages and neoliberal governments took place in Greece, Spain, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and elsewhere. Often bypassing existing trade union structures, often displaying novel techniques, often spontaneous and invariably challenging the neoliberal foundations on which austerity was based, a new and vibrant grassroots movement seemed to be in the making. The strikes and demonstrations resembled a nascent social movement unionism, in which trade unions joined with other movements to resist austerity measures and revive the dream of a Social Europe. Warning that austerity was ‘dismantling the European social model’, the European Trade Union Confederation called for a European Day of Action and Solidarity on 14 November 2012. Some 50 trade union organisations from 28 countries participated, with simultaneous mass strikes in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and Belgium, and trade union confederations across Europe made official protests at both the national and EU level.

After thirty years of decline, had European trade unionism been roused from its slumber? Was the European Day of Action and Solidarity a harbinger of greater vibrancy throughout the movement? To what extent are the strikes and protests since 2008 radical? These and numerous other questions will be addressed in this book. Nine country case studies are presented, with a focus on those countries where trade unions have been ← 3 | 4 → most active in the past few years. Each author provides his or her own conclusions as to whether recent strikes and demonstration will lead to trade union revival or radically challenge existing institutions. The purpose of this introduction is to provide essential background, to overview the chapters, and to offer some tentative conclusions about the prospects for European trade unionism.

The Extent of Decline

The figures detailing dwindling membership across Europe and indeed worldwide are daunting, and they do suggest that trade unionism faces a predicament unlike any that it has previously faced. In 1980 the union density rate for the EU stood at 41 per cent. By 1990 it had fallen to 34 per cent. In 1993 density rebounded to 39 per cent, although this had more to do with the expansion of the EU from 15 to 25 member states in that year, in particular the incorporation of the former East Germany with its high union membership. Decline continued throughout the 1990s, and it has continued unabated in the new century. Between 2002 and 2008, although the total number of wage workers increased in the EU (now with 27 members since the admission of Bulgaria in 2004 and Romania in 2007), the total number of trade unionists dropped from 46 to 43 million, and density fell from 27.8 per cent to 23.4 per cent (Visser, 2010; Bryson, Ebbinghaus and Visser, 2011). The most recent figures indicate that the global financial crisis has exacerbated this downward trend (Schnabel, 2013).

To be sure, there is no simple correlation between trade union density and trade union health and vigour. Density figures can sometimes obscure more than they illuminate. For example, France has traditionally had a low trade union density. In 1980 it stood at just 18.3 per cent, and in 2010 it was a mere 7.6 per cent, the lowest in the EU (Schnabel, 2013: 257). French unions nevertheless wield considerable power through their role in elected workplace representative bodies, the self-administration of social insurance, and their ability to mobilise the public in opposition to ← 4 | 5 → unpopular reforms (Contrepois, 2007). Density figures cannot convey the wide array of non-market sources of trade union power, nor can they shed light on how trade unions actually function within each country. Indeed it is becoming fashionable to argue that a focus on density rates restricts our understanding of trade union behaviour and limits the imagination required for effective trade union renewal (Sullivan, 2010). With that said, trade unions are voluntary organisations, and some of their principal objectives are market based, so maintaining healthy membership levels is important. Membership levels are critical for trade unions’ ability to sign and implement collective agreements with employers and for their capacity to pressurise government policy (Ebbinghaus, Göbel and Koos, 2011). When density plummets, as it has done in the past thirty years, scholars and sympathisers should take careful note. As Schnabel (2013: 98) argues, ‘A huge change or turnaround in the union density rate usually indicates a change in employment relations and the impact of radical labour market developments’.

Beyond density, evidence of trade union decline can be found at every turn. Take for example the growing weakness of public sector unionism. With the decline of manufacturing in Europe, the public sector has been for decades the bastion of trade unionism, yet even public sector unions are under challenge from retrenchment undertaken in the name of national competitiveness. This trend could be seen from the beginning of the 1990s with the triumph of neoliberalism in the political arena and its stress on ‘new public management’ (NPM), and since the global financial dislocations beginning in 2008 the pressure on the public sector and its unions has intensified dramatically. Across Europe politicians eager to show a readiness to balance budgets have attacked public sector pay, pensions, and working conditions, and there has been a marked increase in government unilateralism to impose changes regardless of the protests of public sector unions. A recent study has found that seven of 11 European countries have resorted to pay cuts and pay freezes, several of which were extended despite being put forth as ‘one off’ measures. Austerity packages have also meant redundancies for many public sector workers, and ‘a return to patterns of public sector industrial relations that preceded the recognition of collective bargaining in previous decades’ (Bach and Bordogna, 2013: 287). ← 5 | 6 → There has been a distinct lack of social partner negotiations in the attacks on public sector employment, which has weakened the power of public sector unions. Even their capacity to mobilise protest has been limited, since governments ‘depict them as a narrow, conservative sectional interest group. On the whole, public sector unions are stuck in a defensive, reactive position’ (ibid: 292).

Loss of members and bargaining power has also meant a loss of political influence. Despite wide variation in political systems and hence trade unions’ ability to influence party programmes and national policy, the past few decades has seen a loosening of the ties between unions and the political parties that have traditionally served their interests. In Britain, for example, the constitutional relationship between trade unionism and the Labour Party has deteriorated since 1993. The party began to distance itself from the unions in an effort to attract votes, itself a sign of union decay, and the electoral success of that strategy has allowed the Labour government to fashion Britain as a low wage, deregulated economy so as to attract foreign capital, and to serve as a handmaiden to employer efforts to decentralise collective bargaining, de-recognise trade unions, and introduce flexible, individualised labour contracts (Coates, 2005; Daniels and McIlroy, 2009). Dissatisfaction with the Labour government’s agenda has led to an ongoing debate among British trade unions on whether to reduce funding to the party (trade unions continue contribute more than half of the party’s income) or disaffiliate altogether. Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow prime minister, has recently declared that all future leadership contests in the party should be based on a one-member-one-vote rule and that the current system, in which half of the votes is reserved for the trade unions, should be abandoned. Large trade union affiliates, such as Unite and the GMB, are aghast that the leader of their party, to which they contribute so heavily, is determined to restructure the historic relationship between the party and the unions at their expense (Guardian, 13 January 2014). Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB union, declared recently that his union will support the one-member-one-vote system for electing the party leadership, but that trade unions would not countenance any measures that would weaken their collective voting power at party conferences (Guardian, 30 January 2014). ← 6 | 7 →

Likewise, the historic connection between German trade unions and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has suffered. Unlike Britain, unions in Germany are independent of political parties, and are prohibited from funding parties directly, but they have traditionally served as the bulwark of SPD voters and they have always expected that SPD policies will reflect their concerns. The chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder (1998–2005), however, proved a grave disappointment. His pursuit of welfare reform over union opposition suggests that the SPD no longer considers ‘the unions as a necessary or valuable ally for policy and electoral purposes’ (Hamann and Kelly, 2004: 106). In 2009 Germany’s largest single trade union, IG Metal, declared that the union would not endorse the SPD in the elections. ‘I know there is a historical relationship between the SPD and the unions, but we live in the 21st century’, Berthold Huber explained. ‘The times when the unions could tell people to vote for this or that party are over’, he explained (Financial Times, 1 August 2009).

Somewhat more positive has been the experience of countries where both trade union confederations and collective bargaining are highly centralised, and where the state plays an especially prominent role in industrial relations. Confederations in such countries, notably Spain and Italy, were able to take advantage of political crises to enter into social pacts that have led to significant revitalisation for trade unionism. When the party system disintegrated in Italy in the early 1990s in the face of financial crisis, for example, the Italian trade union movement was politically and economically weak. To the surprise of many, the three union confederations (CGIL, CISL and UIL) overcame their longstanding antipathies, instituted much need internal reforms, and collaborated with the government to resolve the country’s political and economic emergency. The result was an institutionalisation of a system of corporatist policy-making, in which the unions and the state were the major actors. Many of the policies implemented through the social pacts have been painful for unions to accept, and the alliance between the three confederations has been fragile at times, but Italy is an example of how politics can be a means of significant revitalisation (Pulignano, 2007). Yet even here one might question the extent to which Italian unions exercise any real power. Public sector cutbacks have been as deep in Italy as they have been elsewhere, and Italian trade unions felt ← 7 | 8 → compelled to endorse Prime Minister Mario Monti’s sweeping labour law reforms. In 2012, for instance, the three Italian confederations were faced with Monti’s legislative effort to subvert Article 18, which since 1970 had guaranteed Italian workers protection against unfair dismissal. Article 18 served as ‘a banner for workers’ rights and for decades unions had insisted that not a word of it must be changed’ (Fornero, 2013: 11). Yet with the exception of CGIL, which refused to sign the final bill, Italian trade unionism had agreed to fundamental labour law reform as the price for social partnership.

The liberalisation of labour laws across Europe beginning in the 1980s is both cause and effect of trade union weakness. Organisational weakness means that trade unions were usually unable to resist demands to restructure labour laws at the national level, and the new labour law regimes established across Europe have created an even more hostile environment in which trade unions seek to reverse their fortunes. During the ‘golden age’ national labour laws reflected to a great extent a commitment to shield working people from the capriciousness of the market. Meaningful collective negotiation was encouraged, and there was a commitment to provide both full employment and genuine protection against the risks of illness, accidents and ageing. That commitment began to ebb in the early 1980s as soon as the prosperity that undergirded the ‘golden age’ disappeared. In the new era of low growth, high unemployment and neoliberal politics, the commitment to protection from the vagaries of the market gave way to the priorities of national competiveness, price stability, and labour market flexibility. The abandonment of full employment as a policy goal, and the often piecemeal chipping away of legislated labour rights have proven disastrous for European trade unions.

With the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, national legislatures across Europe have become even more aggressive in their efforts to liberalise labour laws, although there is no evidence demonstrating that labour law provoked the crisis. In some cases thorough-going labour law reform is the result of new right-wing governments coming to power, as happened in Hungary, Slovakia and Estonia. In all three countries, customary consultations with social partners were bypassed so that the new governments could design labour laws without trade union input. In other cases changes in labour law have been imposed by the so-called ‘Troika’ – the European ← 8 | 9 → Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The governments of Greece, Portugal and Spain all agreed to radical revision of labour law as part of their Memorandums of Understanding with the Troika. A recent study of labour law since 2008 concludes that across Europe the changes ‘undermine the protective role of both individual and collective labour law, thus putting workers in a more precarious and unprotected situation both in general and in the workplace’ (Clauwaert and Schömann, 2012: 7). Equally worrisome was the fact that in several countries labour law reforms were adopted undemocratically as emergency measures, without the input of social partners.

The new labour laws adversely impact fundamental social rights and hard-won protection for workers on the job. They also pose serious challenges to trade unions. Across Europe new laws are being adopted to permit more overtime, to extend fixed term contracts, to make redundancies easier, and to reduce redundancy pay. Taken together the new laws negatively impact fundamental employment conditions concerning working time, pay, the work environment and basic social protection. New legislation has also been put in place to decentralise collective bargaining, to restructure dispute resolution, and to diminish the role of social dialogue institutions. ‘These reforms of collective labour law will definitely weaken trade union representation and action at all bargaining levels’, conclude Clauwaert and Schömann (2012: 14).


VI, 264
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
ideology political identity economic crisis capitalism radical unionism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. VI, 264 pp., 1 b/w fig., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Heather Connolly (Volume editor) Lefteris Kretsos (Volume editor) Craig Phelan (Volume editor)

Heather Connolly is Senior Lecturer in the Department of HRM at Leicester Business School, De Montfort University. Lefteris Kretsos is Senior Lecturer of Employment Relations and HRM and an active member of the Workplace Employment Research Unit (WERU) at the University of Greenwich. Craig Phelan is Professor of Modern History at Kingston University London and editor of the journal Labor History.


Title: Radical Unions in Europe and the Future of Collective Interest Representation
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