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Radical Unions in Europe and the Future of Collective Interest Representation

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Edited By Heather Connolly, Lefteris Kretsos and Craig Phelan

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.
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Towards Radical Political Unionism?

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The purpose of this chapter is to rehearse the theoretical basis for the concept and practice of radical political unionism. In our book The Crisis of Social Democratic Trade Unionism (2009) we outlined the limits and possibilities of trade union action by analysing the relationship between trade unions, workers’ parties and the state. We stressed that ‘social democratic’ trade unions under capitalism exhibit a contradictory relationship with capital – they bargain within the system, but are unable to transform it because of a passive acceptance of the legitimacy of capitalist property relations. This relationship places constraints on unions’ ability to act as agents of transformative change, and leaves the trade union leaders in a special social position as mediators between capital and labour. ‘Social democratic’ unions are also constrained, albeit consciously and willingly, by the divorce of politics (left to the Party) and economics (the remit of the Union). Richard Hyman (1996: 66) has described this form of trade unionism as ‘political economism’ whereby a complex process of institution building occurred, associated with ‘political exchange’ or ‘neo-corporatism’. The resulting institutions articulated a reciprocal relationship between Labour (seen as trade union leaderships), Capital and the State and involved the exchange of union restraint over wage militancy for labour friendly or labour neutral government policies. These relationships displayed marked national specificities alongside functional similarities and convergence.

The social democratic type of party-union nexus is most prevalent in western Europe, and stands in contrast to other types of relationship under...

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