TCS Daily

State of the Unions

By Joshua Livestro - October 13, 2003 12:00 AM

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 into disarray.


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.


Finally 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.


What 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.


But 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.


The 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.

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