Here's a riddle for you: I have been shrinking for the last 20 years, yet all that time my powers have grown. What am I?
The answer is, of course, the European trade union movement. Or rather, that was the correct answer, until quite recently. Because over the past six months, organized labour in Europe has received a number of serious setbacks that cast doubt on its ability to continue to play an important role in 21st century society.
First of all, in June of this year, there were the failed strikes at Volkswagen plants in Eastern Germany.
These strikes, organized by IG Metall, one of the most powerful trade
unions in Germany, collapsed when workers started crossing the picket
lines because they preferred actual jobs to potential shorter working
weeks (not surprising given the poor state of the German economy). The
failure of the strikes -- the first time this had happened to IG Metall
in more than 50 years -- has thrown the German trade union movement
Around the same time in France
public sector strikes aimed at blocking pension reform proposals by the
government collapsed in spectacular fashion. In an attempt to defuse
his country's pensions time bomb, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin
proposed to make all state employees work 2.5 years longer to receive
full pensions, and to link pensions to prices rather than earnings. The
strikes collapsed when the French public, fed up with the crippling
effects of continuing public transport strikes, took to the streets to
deliver a clear message of "Non!" to the unions. Within weeks of the
end of the strikes, the pensions bill passed through the French
Parliament virtually unchanged.
last week, the British trade unions suffered a series of setbacks at
the annual conference of the governing Labour party. In debates on
health care policy and pension reform, bloc votes on motions attacking
government policy cast by Britain's
four big trade unions ensured the government could never win the
overall vote. But though the unions did indeed win both votes by a
narrow margin, the most striking thing was that almost to a man, party
members backed the government against the unions. Though they won the
vote, the unions seemed to have lost the power to persuade ordinary
Labour supporters to follow their lead.
lies behind this series of setbacks? Some commentators point to the
unions' ever shrinking membership base. The unions simply no longer
have enough members to mobilize for mass action. In France,
less than 10 percent of all workers now belong to a union, down from 20
percent in 1980. Over that same period, and despite record levels of
employment, British unions have lost nearly half their membership. In Germany,
the DGB union alone has lost 1 million members in the last five years.
The shift of heavily unionized sectors of the economy such as
manufacturing to other parts of the world is probably one factor that
has contributed to this process.
that is not the whole story. At the peak of their powers trade unions
never represented more than half the workforce, but they controlled all
of it. Today, however, to most workers, especially younger ones, unions
are a monumental irrelevance. According to a recent article in the
British Guardian newspaper, trade unions are finding it almost
impossible to recruit young workers. Another article, this time in last
week's German weekly Die Zeit, explains why: young people think
unions are boring. In today's political marketplace, unions have to
compete for young people's attention not just with established
competitors like Greenpeace and Amnesty International, but also with
the highly effective new pressure groups of the anti-globalization
movement. And in that marketplace, it doesn't help to have the image of
being an organization for the over-50s.
unions also find it increasingly difficult to come to terms with the
new realities of an emancipated society. Workers are no longer
defenseless pawns on a capitalist chessboard. They are quite capable of
looking after themselves. Education, government policy and management
theories are all geared towards the personal development of the
individual. The new workplace is about self-reliance and individual
responsibility. Most workers are too wrapped up in this process of
personal development to even notice the unions, let alone to go out and
strike on their behalf.
As the summer of discontent in France
has shown, the only way trade unions can still move people into action
is by depriving them of the services they have quite legitimately come
to expect in return for their tax money. Depriving them of their access
to education or public transport can trigger a serious anti-union
backlash. It did in France,
where public discontent grew to fever pitch, until it found a voice in
the unlikely shape of Sabine Herold, a 21-year-old politics student
from Reims. Her address on June 15 to a rally of almost 100,000 anti-strike protesters in Paris marked a turning point not just in the political struggle over pensions reform in France,
but also in the relationship between trade unions and citizens. The
Rheinland system of centralized collective bargaining seems destined
for a radical overhaul. In time, the state of the European Union may be
all the stronger for it.