In a statement submitted to the Seoul Summit of the G20, the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) recalls that “the economic crisis that has disrupted the lives of so many wage earners is far from being over – the crisis has become a social one. There are, today, over 220 million unemployed in the world, the highest level ever reached, 24 million more than in 2002, while about a hundred million people, mainly in the developing countries, have been pushed to extreme poverty”.1 We should realise, however, that these effects are not universal. The examples of Australia and Singapore show that some countries have escaped the effects of the recession and that some have even profited from it. The spread of the recessive effects of the crisis are nonetheless unequalled in history.
In a 2010 report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopts the same position, pointing out that the social effects provoked by the economic recession are unparalleled: “Recent enquiries show a decline in the index of life satisfaction and that this decline is unprecedented” (ILO report 2010). Pessimism holds sway over the majority of citizens in Eastern, Central and Western Europe as much as in those of other continents. Dissatisfied at the direction their countries have taken over the last two years, they are expressing anxiety over their future and that of their children. “In 2009, 73% of Germans said that their children would be able to grow up and study in Germany, while 84% of them said this in 2005”.2 The economic crisis brought about a general decrease in confidence in governments, which are suspected of favouring inequitable measures: “Among the advanced countries and those of Central and Eastern Europe the feeling of injustice, already high in 2006, has increased further still following the crisis. For example, in Greece and Italy, 40% of those questioned by the World Gallup Poll considered their country to be “unfair” in 2009”3. It is by no means sure that the measures taken since have led to any change of sentiment in these countries. In a similar way, the majority of citizens say they disapproved of the bailing out of the banks and financial institutions.
This sense of unfairness reached particularly high levels all through the French social movement’s mobilisations around the pensions issue in autumn 2010; it is, indeed, part of an international trend, especially in Europe. It should also be noted, by the way, that this feeling of injustice has not been expressed in a regular or even coherent manner in the political election results during the same period: the British (May 2010) voted for a government to break with Labour, the Dutch elections (June 9, 2009) saw a strengthening of the right and extreme right and the strong victory of the right in Hungary (May 3, 2010). However, the Greek elections strengthened PASOK (though with a very high level of abstention), and the Swedish elections re-elected the previous conservative government. All of which goes to show a degree of political disorientation and loss of points of reference.
The above-cited ILO report also notes an increase in conflicts in almost all the countries affected by the crisis except for the United States (Sauviat, Sommeillier). It only pointed out qualitative tendencies since neither the intensity nor the duration of the conflicts noted are described. Of the 28 countries covered (including South Africa, Russia and China) 16 were reported as having seen public demonstrations against austerity measures, 21 as having significant conflicts with employers and 15 having specific movements rejecting government plans to counter the crisis. Of these, 18 have experienced at least two of these kinds of conflict, two of which (France and Greece) saw all three kinds (ILO 2010-40). The Baltic countries, Rumania, Bulgaria and the Russian Federation are among the countries cited on two counts, demonstrations and strikes having hit the Baltic countries (principally Latvia and Lithuania) to an extent unequalled since their achievement of independence in the early 1990s.
In May 2010 the Greek government announced a drastic programme of economic adjustment that followed a whole series of restrictive measures already announced during the vote on the budget between the end of 2009 and February 2010. No less than six days of general strikes were called between February and the summer by the two trade union confederations, the GSEE and the ADEDY. More radical in character, the ADEDY, which represents civil servants and the public sector, called thirteen days of action, and the GSEE (mainly private sector employees) organised six strikes4.
The extent of the turnout, however, showed the lag between the extent of the measures proposed and the popular reaction. In Italy, although the division of the trade-union movement could not be overcome, a general strike nevertheless took place on June 25, 2010 and yet another, with a particularly big turnout in three of the Northern Regions (Liguria, Piedmont and Tuscany) on July 2, 2010. Another day of demonstrations that took place on Saturday 16 October, called solely by the FIOM, the CGIL’s metal workers union, but also supported by the CGIL, showed the fighting spirit of wage workers but also amplified the split between the unions. This split, which is paradoxical in a country where unity of action has long been the rule, is not present in other countries of Southern Europe. In Spain, the UGT and the CCDO have worked for a strategic understanding and have agreed on a prudent approach. The relatively low turnout for the February 23 day of action on pensions did not dissuade the two confederations from calling a general strike – the first since 2002 – on September 29, 2010, which had a very good turnout.
However, there was a certain amount of trade-union moderation to avoid weakening Zapatero, the already particularly unpopular leader of the socialist government, since the unions do not want to see the crisis managed by the People’s Party. General strikes are not so rare in Portugal but while they had tended mainly to occur in the public sector and generally divided the union camp, the autumn announcement of yet another austerity plan led to a distinct unity of action. Thus the UGT, close to the Socialist Party, joined the CGTP-In in a general strike on November 24 following a strongly supported strike of civil servants on November 6.
Ireland was the scene of unusual demonstrations in response to the government’s unilateral breach in December 2009 of the social partnership in force since 1987. Faced with the government’s determination to reduce the wages of civil servants, the public-sector unions had called, on November 24, 2009, for a general strike, for which 250,000 turned out. A very vigorous trade-union reaction (work-to-rule slowdown from January in local public services, in health and education, stoppages and school closures) induced the government to accept negotiating some of its future plans but without backing down on the immediate ones. The unions channelled the discontent of their rank and file by adopting a period of protest but also rapidly returned to their role of negotiating with the government, which, however, seemed not to take any notice of their views. Ireland’s social partnership became one of conflict but remained, for the rest of 2010, a partnership.
The United Kingdom is faced with one of the severest austerity programmes in the European Union. Put forward by the newly elected government, it provides for a purge that recalls the early years of Thatcherism, the scourge of the unions. The unions that are members of the TUC have exhibited fairly diverse reactions, but are also restricted by the reactions of a public opinion that seems, at least for the moment, somewhat resigned. The TUC annual congress, in September 2010, nevertheless adopted an ambitious platform, raising the possibility of strikes at local and national levels. However, the leaders of the principal unions evidently do not intend to let themselves be marginalised. They tried to open the way to dialogue with the government but also leaving soon for company-level negotiations to limit the extent of the regression. On November 10, 2010, from 20,000 to 50,000 students (depending on sources) organised a demonstration in London against the hike in university fees provided by Cameron’s plan.
In 2009 and 2010 France was the scene of the biggest wage-earners protest demonstrations against government measures. In early 2009, a very broad association of trade-union confederations, quite uncharacteristic of French traditions, called for two days of demonstrations, which resulted in massive turnouts revealing the depth of the challenge to the policy being pursued at the height of the crisis. The unconditional bailing out of the banks, immediately followed by a brutal increase in the rate of unemployment, provoked vigorous responses in several conflicts with private firms planning lay-offs.
All these tensions found an outlet in the impressive struggle around retirement and pensions that began in the spring of 2010, following the announcement of yet another reform, as usual with hardly any dialogue, of the retirement and pension system. From September to November 2010 the eight days of demonstrations and strikes did not persuade the government to seek the slightest compromise with the unions.
The German trade unions followed another path. The measures announced by the Chancellor in June 2010 envisaged cutting 30 billion Euros from certain social budgets such as the grants to people with hardships (the unemployed, people receiving social assistance, etc.). These measures resulted in sharp condemnation from the DGB and two demonstrations, called in Berlin and Stuttgart on Saturday June 12, 2010, bringing together 20,000 and 10,000 people respectively. The modest turnout for these mobilisations indicates the unions’ disinclination to mobilise outside the procedures of Tarifautonomie.5 In September the issues of retirement rights and wages predominated. While the DGB launched a campaign to explain why they were against raising the retirement age to 67, IG-Metall showed its strength during negotiations over wages.
At the opening of negotiations in the steel industry, IG-Metall demanded a 6% increase in wages (over two years). On September 30 an agreement was reached for 3.6%, which set the same rate for temporary workers. While the unemployed and those doing “minijobs” remain the blind spot of the trade unions, the latter have boldly taken up the issue of temporary workers, demanding that their pay be aligned with that of workers on permanent contract. In autumn the major firms seemed to take note of this wage pressure, and the government did not object to strengthening domestic demand likely to accompany the revival of exports. However, the difficulty of influencing public policies outside the usual procedures of German collective bargaining stimulated much discussion.
Belgian trade unionism is more accustomed to taking stands and mobilising its members on general and political issues. It has preferred, for the time being, to maintain the traditional tripartite system, even though the Belgian crisis is giving this a rough time, since the system is institutional as well as economic.
On January 28, 2010, a joint union demonstration showed a good turnout in the streets of Brussels on the issue of massive layoffs taking place in industry, while not abandoning the area of traditional negotiations. On September 15, 2010, the day on which wage earners were called upon to protest in the streets against the threat to pensions, the unions accepted the extension of the anti-crisis measures adopted the year before.
Luxembourg has also experienced a period of protests. Following the blocking of tripartite negotiations in the spring of 2010, the unions organised a united march on September 16 to bring pressure to bear on the government’s new anti-crisis plan. The next day, the Prime Minister announced a new round of discussions, which concluded with an agreement between the government and the union. Despite substantial concessions made by the unions the employers refused to accept the agreement.
In 2010, Austria experienced a rapid return of employment after a severe crisis in 2008. The country was not the scene of particularly strong demonstrations against government policy. The very integrated social partnership model that formerly characterised the country continued to erode. ÖGB, the central union confederation, has lost a significant part of its former influence, but its sectoral unions have maintained a system of sectoral negotiations, which the employers find restrictive. The partial decline in unemployment and the return of wage increases enabled it to get through the crisis for the time being, but the employers have maintained pressure for a more flexible labour market, while the lack of job security for peripheral groups of workers is continuing to spread.
The two Danish trade union confederations, LO and FTF, mobilised 80,000 people in Denmark to protest against the reform of the unemployment insurance system announced by the new right-wing coalition, which they considered to be calling into question both the “Danish model of flexicurity” and the tax rebates for union membership. The two confederations drew closer by jointly creating a mobilisation group on Facebook that by autumn 2010 had gained tens of thousands of sympathisers. Local activities based on these groups have multiplied.
In Sweden, as well, the trade unions are looking into using the web’s resources to win members, particularly among youth who have been especially hit by unemployment and are not really covered by the crisis agreements made between the unions, the state and the employers. The country has not seen any spectacular mobilisations during 2010, although relations at the “summit” between the protagonists of the historic partnership are continuing to deteriorate.
Developments in Finland have been tenser, with many conflicts. Relations between the traditional tripartite partners have become embittered since the decision taken by the employers in 2008 to break the centralised wage agreements. The cycle of negotiations, which ended in May 2010 was dragged out for a long time and was shot through with an unusual number of strikes (airports, dockers, road transport workers, shop workers and workers in food processing industries), some firms even trying in the course of the year to use strike breakers.
In Norway, the long drawn out struggle in the local authorities amplified a growing trend in 2010 of strikes taking place on the occasion of contract renewals. However nothing happened to endanger the system of cooperation.
The systems of labour-management relations in the new EU member countries are still in an embryonic state. The announced plans for dealing with the effects of the crisis stirred up reactions of discontent, which the unions tried to shape. In the Czech Republic, a very big demonstration was organised in Prague on September 21, 2010, calling on public sector employees to protest against the drastic budget cuts.
Although it seemed less affected by the crisis (Portet 2009), Poland also went through a day of action at the same time – September 22 – carried out by civil servants and employees of state-owned firms. The cuts in the public service budgets brought together the Polish trade unions, which found themselves united (very rare for Poland) in supporting the objectives of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) by demonstrating on September 29 as well.
In Rumania, which also suffered from radical budget austerity measures (a 25% reduction in civil service wages and 15% in pensions), the trade unions tried to mobilise protest in spring 2010. On May 19, 40,000 people rallied in Bucharest to protest against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF and the EU. Several demonstrations followed and a general strike began in the public sector on May 31. The unions, however, had to acknowledge the failure of these attempts.
Two of the three Baltic countries also undertook radical austerity therapy.6 In Latvia, a supplementary dose was administered on July 1 with a 20% cut in civil service wages, a 10% reduction in pensions and in family allowances along with an increase in income tax. Simultaneously in Lithuania, similar measures were taken (a 13% wage cut for civil servants, postponement of retirement age to 65 years). The trade unions of both countries tried to create a “Pan-Baltic” coordination by organising several concerted mobilisations between January and the summer of 2010, in Riga (Latvia) and Vilnius (Lithuania).
In a report for the ILO drawn up in 2009, J. Freyssinet distinguished between countries endowed with a tradition of tripartite institutions and those where the tripartite tendency works through a less explicit combination of trade and industry negotiation and public policies, in fact those “where relations between the three actors are established in a pragmatic and discontinuous manner, often informal, as a function of the cases and circumstances” (Freyssinet, 2010). In an assessment made at about the same time, the author concluded that passing from phase 1 (saving the banks, “wait and see” or revival measures) to phase 2 (drastic reduction of public deficits) was accompanied by deterioration in the capacity of tripartite management to ensure sufficient convergence of the positions and perspectives of its protagonists. This suggestion was qualified by the great variety of national situations.
According to Rehfeldt (2009), six countries could still be classed as having “institutionalised tripartite” relations: Belgium, Holland, Norway, Finland, Austria and Ireland. It is suggested that Denmark and Sweden, usually included in this category, be viewed differently, characterised as they are by “occasional” tripartite relations. These relations remained strong in the first four countries in 2008 and 2009 – and still even in 2010. However the area in which tripartite relations were applied shrank in 2010 – the relationship remained, but in a toned down version. Most of the time, it only survived because the unions agreed to put aside some important issues, either to keep open, at all cost, the possibility of negotiating on other subjects they considered strategic (the status of staff, for example, in Belgium) or to maintain some centralised pressure on public policies.
A second group of countries are classified by Freyssinet (2010) and Rehfeldt (2009 in an intermediate group that connects both bi- and tripartite relations. This includes France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. These four countries saw a spectacular deterioration of relations at the summit without the density of bipartite relations taking over. Unlike Italy, the usually divided French and Portuguese unions found common ground in opposition to the government’s policies, which were fully supported by the employers, while the Spanish unions closed ranks and distanced themselves from the government.
In Italy, the deterioration is spectacular, particularly in the trade-union camp, where the tradition of unity between the confederations in national collective bargaining was broken in January 2009 by the CISL and UIL confederations that negotiated deals alone, isolating the CGIL. The year 2010 has deepened the gap between the organisations, since large-scale mobilisations organised by the CGIL during the year have given rise to retaliations by the other confederations.
In those countries with “occasional” consultation, among which Sweden and Demark should from now on be classified, 2010 did not witness noteworthy events. Sweden moved, for the time being, to a situation of “all at company level”, trimmed with some sectoral agreements on wages or on-the-job injuries. In Germany, sectoral negotiations have been resumed but they increasingly co-exist with dense company-level negotiations (see below). We pointed above to the situation in central and Eastern countries not being taken into account by the authors cited here. One cannot talk about tradition or even of a trajectory, since there is such a lack of basis for systems of professional relations, if one can talk about a “system” at all. In these countries the agreements occasionally reached in the past left no lasting mark.
The economic and social situation obtaining in most of them does not, in the short term, make for a framework that could encourage such an expansion; this is likely to remain so long as there is no impulse in that direction in the rest of the continent.
To sum up, the number of countries in which tripartism has declined in the course of 2010 has increased, and, depending on the different scenarios to come, this number could well increase still further. Even where consultation is a more or less traditional part of social relations, a drift away from this tradition is noticeable. These changes, however, do not necessarily foreshadow a generalised deterioration of models of industrial relations. The measures taken or announced in 2010 were quite radical in a number of countries, and the hope of getting them accepted by the unions were so slight that little compensation was envisaged. Another factor can tip the balance to the restrictive systems that weigh on governments of a certain number of countries – in particular pressure from more influential countries or international institutions (European Union, European Central Bank, Eurogroup or IMF).
The “smaller” countries of the Union, those that are still dependent on transfer mechanisms, do not have complete freedom to choose their policy, as has clearly been shown in the case of Portugal over the last few years.7 These external restrictions can be such that there is not enough margin of manoeuvre to maintain or produce a national compromise. Where this margin does exist, as in Luxembourg, the government has accepted going back to the drawing board even if that means the employers dissociating themselves from the final agreement. This situation is rare – the extent of demonstrations provoked by the crisis has only in a few cases led to substantial alterations of the announced projects – but then, the economic situation of the Grand Duchy is not the same as that of Ireland or Spain …
The issue of strategy is raised for a number of unions that have great difficulty in legitimising their role when institutionalised exchanges no longer deal with the central factors elements of wage relations of wages. Moreover, they tend to leave increasing fringe sections of wage earners outside negotiated agreements.
Despite recent changes, the unions find it difficult to go beyond the so-called central groups of wage earners. The 2009 agreements on the crisis (particularly on part-time unemployment or “OHECK”) had tended to protect these core groups that are, moreover, often at the heart of forming unions. A trend has developed over the last few years, which will no doubt take time to become general, and which shows an awareness of this. In 2010, besides the case of IG-Metall in Germany, three confederations in Finland have proposed some controls of temporary employment contracts inside an ad hoc tripartite commission; the Norwegian LO wants to extend the rights of worker participation in firms of 30 to 50 wage earners.
The Nordic unions, anxious to attract the young, are seeking ways of reducing the fragmentation of wage earners.8 In Portugal, the CGTP-In is strengthening its links with the movements of precarious workers. Trends in this direction are expanding, but other fringe groups of wage earners (or groups outside the wages system, such as different forms of independent work) remain distant from any representation. Tensions come into play between a form of unionism still largely based on trades and other more “societal” forms, like the struggle waged by Ver.Di in Germany against the Schlecker chain of stores in Germany. In Germany, this situation has ignited a debate inside the DGB. They provide opportunities for new trade-union strategies to regain some power in the context of a decentralisation that has become structural.
Another opportunity for redefining strategy is provided by the still very national character of unions when the issues are manifestly of an international or at least European nature. The fanatical policies of reducing the public debt appear to be specifically European. Although the unions have long possessed community-wide tools it is often striking how little place is generally given by the national unions to action aimed at this level of work. Unless the current crisis is in fact what might give impulse to this level of organistaion.
The changes in systems of representation at the heart of this new phase of the crisis show two widely shared trends, which could work towards reconfiguring these systems: first, the new unilateral behaviour of governments; second, the continuing decentralisation of collective bargaining.
The first factor weakening these important systems of dialogue comes from the relative withdrawal of some of those taking part. The course briefly sketched above shows different trends in the degree of commitment of the protagonists of the tripartite relationship. An increasing number of governments have dropped any consultation with the unions. The employers have generally supported the policies conducted by the governments, generally agreeing with its stands while sometimes continuing to make agreements, either on specific issues or on the industrial level – sometimes on both. It is often only the fact of the unions’ commitments to this form of regulation that has enabled it to be maintained.
Beside the example of Ireland this stand position is shared in other countries – in Austria, in Denmark, in Finland, in fact in countries where social relations no longer seem to be fully contained by the sophisticated mechanisms of traditional relations but where the unions – and often they alone —remain committed to their existence. However, this neo-corporatism (and those forms of dialogue that can be conceptually connected with it) can only be based on the determination of a single one of the parties involved in the social relationship in a very short temporary manner. It is thus important to know whether this unilateral behaviour of governments (at any rate regarding the unions) is a temporary digression that will soon be dropped or a more long-term trend.
The second significant factor is the decentralisation of negotiation, increasingly being pushed, including in countries with a tradition of centralisation. In Sweden, a number of agreements have been made at the individual company level (Jolivet, Mantz, 2009), thus breaking with a long tradition of centralisation by sector.
One of the first measures adopted in Greece in April 2010 was the abrogation of the principle that no agreement negotiated at company level can be less favourable to the wage earners than agreement at sector or industrial level.9 In Spain, as in Poland, firms may from now on free themselves from sector level wage agreements (ETUC, 2010). The pressure exerted by the employers in Germany since the beginning of the 1990s has born fruit since company-level negotiations have grown despite the formal maintenance of the fundamental weight of sector level collective agreements (Bispinck et al., 2010). This process, which is well known in France, has been accompanied, in nearly all the countries where it has taken place, by a strengthening of the position of the employers and an asymmetrical weakening of the power of the unions. It brings with it a fragmentation of representation that tends structurally to weaken the capacity of unions to coordinate the objectives of their members (or of wage earners in general, depending on national traditions) within the institutional framework, whether it is bi- or tripartite, systematic or occasional. U. Rehfeldt (2009) recalls that the neo-corporatist paradigm founded by P. Schmitter in 1981 presupposed strongly established central protagonists and an equal capacity for coordination on all sides. The formulation used by Traxler, twenty years later, with the emergence of a “reduced neo-corporatism”, took into account the gradual decentralisation of collective bargaining and thought that its characterisation as of neo-corporatism could remain so long as the unions ensured a coordination of this decentralisation.
It can be asked whether, ten years later, decentralisation is not being taken to a new level (from the industry towards the firm), necessitating a redefinition of union strategies and a new evaluation of system dynamics of the old forms of neo-corporatism. Certainly, the development of company level arrangements does not abolish regulations made at higher levels, but it can, depending on the specific systems or the situation of the moment, allow other levels to play aframing role – or on the contrary, an additional role offering new and broad varieties of kinds of regulation.
It is probable that the hypothesis of new kinds of heterogeneity thus could be confirmed. The process under way would then be in the nature of a reconfiguration of social exchange, the social crisis providing the opportunity for this reformulation.
The year 2010 draws attention to the brutal changes that, in a great number of countries, have broken with the balance sought in the previous period. The trade unions played their part in the negotiation when they could, and in leading the protest movements when they occurred. The governments were in less of a hurry to seek their support in establishing policies whit high deflationary risk. The employers continued to push for their interests, sometimes by negotiation, sometimes by hiding behind legislative arrangements set up by the governments and promoted by international institutions. In this way, an ever-increasing flexibility of the labour market was announced and established in many countries, with the return of wide areas of collective bargaining to the individual firms.
The order injunctionradically to reduce public expenditure has made public employment the most frequent target for carrying out these policies. The governments repeat, with a fine show of unanimity, the necessity of reducing the number of civil servants, or else they go overboard in pure and simple denunciations of the parasitic nature of public expenditure. Because of this the public employees have become, in most countries, the heart and soul of the mobilisations – especially as in many cases they have been at the heart of forming unions.
The collective mobilisations have been important symbolically, but a number of them had no repercussions or, when they were prolonged, had no real hold on decisions. The unions remain confronted with strategic difficulties that are all the more acute since the governments are making no attempt to reinforce their role as protector of wage earners. The major systems of industrial relations retain their control potential but seem to be reduced to a collection of forms whose content has clearly lost its value.
At this moment of unfavourable circumstances or structural shifting, other assessments are needed to understand a complex and changing reality. The ETUC has severely condemned the policy being carried out by the countries of the Union. It has been, since the start of the crisis in 2008, in in accord with virtually all its affiliates and of European public opinion in demanding a fresh “New Deal”, calling for “a vast stimulation programme, stronger welfare states, (…) an effective regulation of the financial markets and an equitable distribution of wealth” (ETUC, 2010).
It also announced its support for adopting a tax on financial transactions and published leaflets and arguments for use by its affiliates. On September 29, 2010 it organised an all-European demonstration (100,000 people in Brussels), which was intended to be a date for convergent national demonstrations throughout the Union. John Monks, its General Secretary, affirmed on several occasions the ETUC’s support for demonstrations and strikes. The ETUC has never had such a distinct and critical stance on European policy.
There remains, however, a sense of incompleteness due to the weak pressure concretely brought to bear on European policy being carried out under the pressure of the “big countries” and by the European Central Bank. The discussion on conditions for strategic action in Europe has proven to be a very difficult one. The ETUC member organisations seem to be giving it increased importance. It is undoubtedly one of the conditions for rebuilding the legitimacy and power of the trade union movement in the part of the world in which it was born.