A recent lecture at the University of Manchester painted a picture of trade union decline across Western Europe. Dr Stefania Marino and Prof Miguel Martinez Lucio reflect on a difficult period for the unions, but argue they are still important players, economically and politically.
The power of trade unions across Western Europe has declined – but nowhere else as much as in the United Kingdom. That was the clear and graphic message delivered in Manchester by Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick and Richard Hyman, authors of the newly published book Trade Unions in Western Europe.
Trade unions in most of Europe are on the defensive: in recent decades they have lost membership, sometimes drastically; their collective bargaining power has diminished, as has their influence on government; and in many countries, their public respect is much reduced.
But the nature of this decline is substantially different across ten west European countries examined: Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Italy.
While bargaining coverage has been maintained, or even increased, in many countries, it has fallen substantially in the UK and Ireland (see figure one, below). In 1980, bargaining coverage in the UK stood at 70%: by 2010 it had collapsed to just 33%. By contrast, in the same period in Denmark it increased from 72% to 80%.
The density of union membership has fallen almost universally across Western Europe – Belgium is an exception – but to a very different extent (see figure two, below).
In France, union membership has fallen for several decades and is now the lowest in Western Europe, at just 8% in 2010. British trade unionism has suffered from parallel challenges: anti-trade union legislation from Conservative governments, alongside rapid occupational and sectoral change in the composition of the labour market and the rise of more aggressive and sophisticated management approaches.
There is no clear relationship between the density of union membership and unions’ bargaining coverage. Some countries feature low union membership density, yet high levels of bargaining coverage. Despite France’s mere 8% union membership in 2010, it had 90% bargaining coverage.
Traditional pictures of trade unions in different European countries may no longer hold true. It has been said that smaller countries with a greater level of international trade, such as Denmark and Sweden, tend to have higher levels of trade union membership, with unions tightly integrated into national policy-making.
France and Italy have been regarded as having influential unions based on their associations with tightly disciplined Communist Party organisations. Some other European countries, including Germany, have strong ‘social partnership’ models that ensure union influence and consultation. The UK and Ireland are seen as having a distinctive Anglo-Saxon model of trade unionism.
However, these classifications are over-simplistic and trade union models in different European countries have evolved. Nor is there any clear association between density of trade union membership in a country and the representation of labour movement political parties. However, over time the historic differences between countries in union strength have tended to persist.
There are signs that where trade unions benefit from structurally secure influence – as through social partnerships, works councils and political engagement – they become conservative and complacent about their roles, potentially undermining their capacity to attract membership.
Despite the apparent union decline, contemporary challenges can stimulate new thinking and provide new opportunities. Those challenges include the decline of the traditional workforce, which erodes the core union membership; the move towards a more aggressive ‘shareholder value’ capitalism; bargaining decentralisation under multi-national corporate structures; and neo-liberalism, austerity politics and the marginalisation of unions as a political force.
Trade unions have responded in different ways to these challenges. There have been moves to co-operate on a cross-border basis, with bargaining co-ordination and the adoption of European Works Councils. Some unions, as in the UK, have redefined their interests and constituencies, for example by supporting the rights of migrant workers. Others, as in Germany, have increasingly focused on the representation of women workers and campaign for a minimum wage established in law.
Despite this difficult period, trade unions remain important subjects for analysis and are still important players, economically and politically.
Unions retain a collective ‘voice’ that allows employees to challenge management control, bringing a measure of balance to the employment relationship. They act as a form of ‘countervailing power’ to the socio-economic dominance of capital. They can be a ‘sword of justice’ to defend the weak, vulnerable and disadvantaged, expressing values that oppose the dominant political economy and offer aspirations for a different – and better – form of society.
Increasingly, unions are re-evaluating their purpose and strategies. Having declined through complacency, they will adopt more innovative approaches. They will seek strategies that provide for internal renewal. And they will examine their resources, structures, democratic systems and methods of leadership.
There cannot be any simple generalisation about the state of trade unions in Western Europe. Nor is it clear whether they will now embark on genuine renewal, or merely damage limitation. There is some evidence of revitalisation, but it is too early to say how substantial this will be.
Trade unions, though, should not be written-off as a political force. Eppur si muove – in the face of all their challenges, trade unions continue to move and together they remain a movement.