• A Waste of Time and Effort? The Need for a Strategic Re-orientation of the Trade Unions

  • By Hans-Jürgen Urban | 20 Apr 10 | Posted under: Social Movements and Trade Unions , Transformative Strategies
  • There is no doubt: the trade unions, particularly the German ones, represent reliable supporters of Europe. Although the unions repeatedly emphasise that Europe could be more social, they mostly support European unification without voicing any fundamental criticisms. However, this unswervingly pro-European stance is increasingly faltering in view of the structural shifts now discernible in the European integration process. When we ask what it is precisely that has triggered the present debate on the future of the trade unions’ European policies, the first things that spring to mind are the recent judgement by the European Court of Justice and the obvious inadequacies displayed by the European Union (EU) in coping with the current financial crisis and its repercussions on the shape of the economy.


    However, from this perspective we lose sight of the fact that, as a whole, the EU’s present evolution entails risks for employees and their unions. And those risks will not simply vanish if the European Court of Justice revises its judgement or a new economic upswing occurs. The trade unions are facing the challenge of effecting a strategic realignment of their European policies with a view to developing a carefully thought-out form of European realism that provides a constructive pro-European criticism of the European Union. This new realism would include acknowledging the fact that the ongoing questioning of social standards and the erosion of the trade unions’ power to organise and negotiate are not merely transient phenomena but are structurally anchored in the political economy of the present path to integration and the institutional design of the EU – and that the revitalisation of European trade unions can be expected only via a socio-economic reprogramming of the integration process.

    Radicalisation of internal market integration?

    This assessment calls for explicit substantiation. The “Lisbon Strategy” was intended to make Europe the most competitive economic region in the world. This resulted in extensive restructuring measures of the Union according to competitiveness. Member states – often supported by national competition pacts between labour, capital and government – attempted to gain territory by means of power politics. This is part of the reason why, even before the onset of the financial crisis, Europe was increasingly perceived not so much as a harmonious confederation but as an arena for the clash of political power interests in which negotiation strategies were hardly beneficial for the Union as such. Public admission that the Lisbon process had failed and the implementation of the “Europe 2020” initiative as a follow-up project are likely to fuel such developments. And at the same time, reversion to political self-seeking at the national level undermines the ability of the European Union to achieve an expeditious agreement on a common strategy to fight the global financial crisis and its effects on the workings of the economy. In the grip of long-term basic trends and of pressing problems in the wake of the financial and economic crisis, the EU sometimes appears ineffectual and disunited. Much is to be said for Paul Krugman’s assessment that this “structural weakness in times of crises” points to defects in the overall complexion of the EU that are now being mercilessly revealed by the effects of the world economic crisis. The EU’s problem-solving capacities have proved to be highly deficient and a division of Europe as a result of inadequate crisis management cannot be entirely ruled out.

    Like the political classes in general, the trade unions have also been comparatively ineffectual in the face of these developments. At all events, their pro-European stance is increasingly at odds with the growing disenchantment with Europe and the power-political realities in Europe. At the same time, trade unions find themselves penned in between radical market integration and spiralling liberalisation policies. Accordingly, they are faced by the threat of losing members, negotiation power and political influence even more quickly than before. At present, they even have to cope with the threat of radicalised internal market integration. In its more recent decisions, the European Court of Justice has given precedence to fundamental economic freedoms to the detriment of a restriction of such freedoms by governments and trade unions, a move that is not commensurate with primary European law. This establishes a preferential treatment of competitive business interests over and against the distribution, employment and security interests of employees. The upshot is a trend towards untrammelled competitive freedom and an undercutting of social benefits that has already been favoured by the EU’s expansion to the east.

    If we extrapolate these current developments, it becomes immediately apparent that efforts towards establishing social policies with a corrective effect on the market or a social welfare state at the European level would have little prospects of success in the near future. In addition, stepping up the dynamism of the internal market is threatening to damage the basic institutions of the welfare state at the national level. This applies not least to the German system of collective bargaining, co-determination and various other labour-related and social rights. In the wake of all this, the institutional clout, the economic negotiation power and the political influence of the trade unions would dwindle further.

    Correcting tradeunion policy towards Europe

    So the trade unions must face up to the new and dramatic challenges posed by this situation. What is to be done? A basically anti-European retreat to the nationstate is not a viable option for the trade unions. Company decisions, labour markets and distribution conflicts have irreversibly transcended the borders of the nation-state. Market-corrective sociopolitical interventions by nation states and trade unions must follow suit and make good their transnational deficits. But the mostly unsuccessful forays undertaken so far in the direction of a “social Europe” indicate that the asymmetry between economic and social integration is structurally anchored in the political economics of the integration process, the socioeconomic balance of power and the institutional design of the EU. Under these conditions, employees are bound to systematically forfeit rights, while the trade unions are equally bound to systematically forfeit bargaining and organising power. So they are quite right to point to the dimensions and the dramatic nature of current developments – and simultaneously to the deficits existing in the trade unions’ Euro-policy to date. If the absence of social standards, damage to the national welfare state and the loss of tradeunion power result from structural defects in the European integration process, counterstrategies must be of a kind that can bring about structural change. Social policies of a merely rhetorical nature addressing normative appeals to the elite of European decisionmakers will not be capable of diverting the market-dominated process of unification to a more social path. What we need is a strategic reorientation of the trade unions’ European policies. This is true not least for the German trade unions.

    Reorientation of the development path towards Europe

    So far, the response of decisionmaking elites to market radicalisation and Euro-scepticism among the population has not been to institute a change of course but to push for accelerated preferential treatment for economic interests and an alarming disregard for democratic principles. Here it will suffice to point to how the vote against the EU Constitution in some member states has been dealt with. Europe seems to be mutating into a detached “elite process” (Max Haller) where the institutions of representative democracy remain outwardly intact but the refusal of the European demos to agree with and participate in this process is increasingly apparent. In this context, the absence of socio-political regulations and the striking democracy deficit should be the crucial targets of a revision of trade-union strategies with regard to European policy. We need strategic Europolitical realism that without falling into the trap of anti-European renationalisation entertains no illusions about the status and prospects of employee interests in a market-dominated Europe, a realism geared to the correction of social and democratic deficits via structurechanging reforms. Our analysis so far suggests that the requisite strategy should operate at a variety of different political levels:

    • As the emergence of a European welfare state is not a realistic proposition in the near future, it is a particularly urgent requirement to defend and further develop national welfarestate models and the rights associated with them. On a European plane, minimum standards and existing rights in fiscal, social and codetermination policies need to be safeguarded in order to preserve welfarestate institutions in the member states from getting dragged down into competitive economic and institutional dumping and to open up new scope for market correction. The inclusion of a “social progress clause” in the Lisbon Treaty – as called for by the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) – could be a step in the right direction. At the same time, minimum fiscal, social and labourpolicy standards could be defined on a European level as relative standards oriented to economic power and substantiated at a nationstate level in order to take account of the different economic development levels in the member states. Where necessary, their implementation should be temporarily subsidised in weaker economies.
    • From a German perspective, this strategy should be supplemented by far-reaching reorganisation of the industrial valuechain model. The crisis has caused central foreign markets to collapse, which represents a threat to the German export business as the country’s most important growthdriver. Safeguarding jobs by shortening work time is not likely to be an option that can be perpetuated indefinitely. More sophisticated plans for protecting employment and the industrial value chain are indispensable. IG Metall has proposed endowing a Public Equity Fund with at least 100 billion Euros so that the government can acquire stakes in companies faced by threats to their very existence. This fund would be financed by mandatory loans on assets over 750,000 Euros. The provision of public equity should be used as a channel for exerting public influence on business policies by linking it with conditions that have to be fulfilled. Among these conditions are forbidding layoffs for operational reasons, orientation of corporate policies to sustainable business development, ecological modernisation of products and production, compliance with collective bargaining and co-determination rights, and first steps towards a new model for management board remuneration. The decision to provide public finance and equity holdings must take due account of the macroeconomic situation and societal aspects. The decision-making and steering body would be a tripartite council made up of representatives from business, the trade unions and the government.
    • However, the need for strategic innovations goes even further. Before the economic crisis, the German “export champion” model shone with the outstanding successes achieved by excellence in production and products. The quality and the dynamic innovations of the German mechanical engineering industry were legendary. But under pressure of the shareholdervalue regime, ecological criteria for sustainability were increasingly ignored and the tendency towards a progressive “precarisation” of human labour was exploited to achieve a competitive edge. We should not simply continue along this path once the crisis is over. Neither the industrial value chain nor employment can be safeguarded in Germany just by reconquering global markets. The voices criticising the German “export champion” model are getting louder. At the same time, political tensions between the member states are bound to increase. Strategic innovations in the form of employment- and ecologyoriented reorganisation schemes are required by all key actors, businesses, government and trade unions alike. A strategic development model is required that reconciles the social reproduction interests of labour with the development interests of society and with ecological sustainability. The German value-chain model based on exports would have to be reoriented towards an economic regime focussing on the massive strengthening of the domestic ­economy via public investment, dramatic wage increases in the production and service industries and fair economic structures in Europe and the whole world. 
    • This requires institutional reforms expanding existing channels for the exertion of democratic influence or opening up new ones. Further strengthening of the European Parliament and the disentanglement of institutional decision-making structures would be conceivable ways of achieving this objective. In the European Union, there is discussion of more generous expansion of qualified majority voting into further socio-political fields in order to facilitate marketcorrective regulations. Direct participation of populations in basic decisions should also be accorded key functional status. To a hitherto unprecedented extent, referendums on the EU Constitutional Treaty or quasi-plebiscites in the form of civic protest movements against the “European Services Directive” have put “Europe” squarely on the agenda for the national publics and clearly demonstrated the political potential of direct forms of democracy. 

    Crisis management put to the test

    Given the severity of the current economic crisis, a successful anti-crisis policy at a European level can fairly claim to be something like a litmus test for Europe. Concerted and multidimensional crisis management cannot function without action promoting economic consolidation, growth, employment and ecological modernisation. Should successes in these fields fail to materialise, extensive reform efforts will rapidly run out of steam. There are at least four components on which a policy of economic revitalisation could be based.1 First: There is a need for democratic control and regulation of Europe’s financial sector in order to stabilise the financial system that is essential for the economy as a whole and redirect it towards the function of promoting investments in the real economy and fostering innovations. Second: We need a European programme to stimulate the ­economy, to improve infrastructure and ecological transformation. Its scope must be equivalent to the dip in growth that we have incurred and meet the transportation requirements needed for ecological transformation. Third: In response to the acute crisis of the automotive industry and the foreseeable crises affecting other industrial sectors (such as steel and chemicals), we need a strategically aligned European industrial policy that integrates the necessary activities into a long-term investment and development concept, guarantees further development, modernisation and reproportioning of industrial production, and organises master plans for conversion to renewable energies. Fourth: What is finally required is a departure from the policy of liberalising public enterprises. We need a debate on new schemes for delivering public and generalinterest services in order to counteract the decay of public infrastructure and to develop new forms of social services.

    A new European “Mosaic Left” as a perspective?

    However, such a socio-economic paradigmshift collides with the income and power interests of capitalist elites operating on the financial markets. In spite of the hegemonic crisis of neoliberalism, they have not yet had to relinquish their unrestricted control. The crisis is gaining momentum and some isolated protests have been heard, but despite this the European trade union movement still seems to be marooned by a “peculiar lull” (Jürgen Habermas). Once again we see that crisis alone does not generate political action. Protest does not grow automatically. The urgently required politicisation of the masses only occurs when there are societal movements, actors and forces that crystallise frustration and indicate perspectives. If the trade unions want to play a more important role, they must revamp their organising and bargaining power at a national level and pursue their specific political interests on the European plane.

    Such a programme of union revival will first obey an intrinsic logic of its own and accordingly is a task to be tackled by the unions themselves. Nonetheless, trade unions should integrate their revival efforts into a broader context of civic activism. The objective should be to assemble all those sectors of society whose interests are liable to be quashed by the capitalist crisis and the currently prevailing capital-compliant solution strategies of the elite. Such a movement should focus not only on the increasingly obvious cracks in the structure of neoliberalism but also relate to the fullyfledged systemic crisis affecting the species of capitalism that is driven by the financial markets. Such a counter-hegemonic bloc would have to bring together the trade unions with antiglobalisation movements, non-governmental organisations, numerous social interest groups and finally the critical minds of the cultural left, i.e. academics, intellectuals and others. With a belief in the principle of autonomous cooperation it would have to search for common political projects and objectives, but should guard against overharmonisation. The chair of the works council of an industrial enterprise, the humanrights or environmental activist and the political professional from the Attac coordination group come from different cultural worlds and different social backgrounds. But if they want to join forces for common political projects, a new culture of mutual tolerance and acceptance for specific movement and organisation cultures would be the key resource for such an alliance. 

    Maintaining the autonomy of the organisational cultures of those cooperating would not necessarily diminish the attraction of such a movement. Just as a mosaic displays its beauty as an ensemble though its individual parts remain recognisable, a newly-established left could be perceived and appreciated as a heterogeneous collective actor. Particularly in Europe, the emergence of such a “mosaic left” would be something of a bumpy ride. It would be a process requiring collective theoretical efforts in order to truly understand the dimensions of the crisis and to locate entry points for counter-measures. In addition, it would require practical political resistance. The unions should not delude themselves into believing that they can offset their power-political weakness by integrating themselves into the new corporate anti-crisis mechanisms sometimes offered to them in the nationstates and in Europe. The range of specifically trade-union policies and the scope of radical union protest must keep pace with the crisis process itself and the expectations of our membership base. This is surely the only course that would enable the trade unions to make genuine progress in their efforts to achieve sustained political revitalisation.


    Translated from German into English by Ursel Reineke und Andrew Jenkins, Reineke Team.



    1) See e.g. EuroMemorandum-Gruppe: EuroMemo 2008/2009. Supplement der Zeitschrift Sozialismus 4/2009.

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