The trade union movement in Europe

19 March 2010

The trade union movement in Europe

Since the mid-1980s, Brussels has been associated first and foremost with Europe's neoliberal policies. The trade union movement in Europe appears to have been taken in by Brussels' institutions and thus rendered harmless. There is, nevertheless, a great deal which the movement could achieve there.

by Dennis de Jong,
Member of the European Parliament for the SP

In 1985 Philips top honcho Wisse Dekker, together with colleagues from other European multinationals, presented a blue print for a neoliberal Europe: a clear run for unbridled competition, even if this should be at the cost of social rights, market rules for the public sector, and 'flexibilisation' of the labour market (for which read: getting rid of protection from dismissal), to name just a few examples. The multinationals got their wish: all of their proposals were adopted, and Brussels thus came to work heart-and-soul on policies which led eventually to the worst economic crisis since the Second World War.

The trade union movement plays no role in this scenario, or at least none of any significance. It is primarily major corporations which exert influence in Brussels. Yet unions are solidly organised on the European level in the shape of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). In addition numerous national trade unions, such as our own FNV (Federation of Dutch Trade Unions), maintain an office in Brussels from where they can also influence EU policy.

I would put the blame for the movement's scant influence on the EU primarily on three factors: (1) lack of sufficient personnel; (2) infection of representatives in Brussels with the EU virus; (3) a complete absence of militancy on the part of the trade unions themselves, certainly in the Netherlands.

Shortage of personnel

Shortage of personnel is of course always a relative term: if you find something of importance, however, then you will make an effort to provide sufficient financial resources for it, and the trade union movement is not particularly poor. In reality, ETUC has a mere handful of staff members. The complaint from those who run it is that they never have enough support workers available to make a fist of anything. The FNV office, for its part, consists of three people, each of whom, moreover, spends only part of his or her time in Brussels.

If you compare this to the major corporations' enormous lobby industry, it's no wonder that the trade union movement doesn't get much of a hearing. As a Member of the European Parliament it's incumbent upon you, however, to do your best to stay in contact with trade union representatives. The big corporations bury you under tons of paper offering their opinions, and are continually inviting you to lunch, to a reception or to some other event. Little, on the other hand, arrives in the post from the trade unions. Set against the countless informal consultation bodies which bring Euro-MPs together with other interest groups – the European Parliament's so-called 'Intergroups' – there is all-told precisely one group which aims to encourage dialogue with the trade union movement. .

Trade unions do have the advantage that the European Commission and the European Council are obliged to consult with them on a regular basis. On 4th February a meeting took place, for example, between the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and representatives of ETUC. Yet without a hefty accompanying lobby, this dialogue makes little sense: who in the Netherlands knows when the trade union movement is taking part in this sort of meeting and just what is being discussed? ETUC's website displays in relation to this only a few general slogans. Major corporations do this very differently: when their interests are at stake, they are immediately on to the media, and provide extensive information materials to everyone and anyone who might have any influence.

The EU virus

Joining in with things in Brussels is more attractive than it may appear from a distance. Above all, if you give a glimpse of a certain Europhile attitude, you can count on plenty of approval and a great deal of appreciation. This is a danger to everyone who works there. To stay critical of European policies, you must be sure to maintain close contact with your supporters, because everything in Brussels is designed to take you in and win you over.

Unfortunately I have the impression that most trade union representatives working in Brussels are indeed seduced into the EU way of thinking. The Brussels representative of the FNV, for example, felt it incumbent upon him during a conference on Europe that the union federation organised on 29th January, to say that there were ten national civil servants in the Netherlands for every EU official, and that these officials were much more accessible than were their colleagues in The Hague. This is just the kind of propaganda which the European Commission itself continually spreads. Apart from the fact that the figures don't add up (as the president of public sector union ABVA-KABO remarked, officials employed by the European institutions to work in the member states are counted in the national figures, and only officials working on policy matters are included in the EU figure), it is simply untrue to say that Dutch trade unions find it difficult to contact national civil servants. European officials are possibly no less open, but they receive far more representatives of employers than they do of employees, while in the Netherlands efforts are for the most part made to achieve a certain even-handedness. The composition of the SER, the official body charged with giving advice to the government on social and economic policy, is completely balanced. This is far from being the case when it comes to the European Commission's advice groups.

The Dutch trade union movement was in favour, also, of the European Constitution, and presents the Lisbon Treaty as above all a step forward in the direction of a more democratic Europe. During the above-mentioned conference, however, what emerged was that rank-and-file FNV members had a very different, and much more realistic, image of Brussels. While the rank-and-file is critical, their representatives are anything but, so that what we have is a sizeable gap between trade union officials in Brussels and ordinary members back home. This is not, however, the case for every union. The European Federation of Public Service Unions (known as EPSU), for example, does raise important criticisms regarding the continuing introduction of market methods into the public sector. Both ETUC and the FNV's Brussels office have, however, an outspoken Europhile attitude.

Lack of militancy

We see the same in the Netherlands in the half-hearted manner in which the trade union movement has responded, for example, to the campaign against the proposed increase of the pensionable age from 65 to 67. But we also see at European level how the unions leap in with concessions before negotiations have really begun and while actions are being taken to give demands some bite.

This became clear with the official attitude adopted by the trade unions in relation to the introduction of market rules into public service provision. No problem privatising the post, as long as this is accompanied by flanking measures to take care of the social consequences. The same can be seen when it comes to the concept of ‘flexicurity’. Developed in the framework of the Lisbon Agenda, which was to make Europe's economy the most competitive in the world by this year, this idea included accepting that workers could no longer be offered effective protection against dismissal, and that instead you should direct yourself towards guaranteeing employment in a general sense. Pity if you find it agreeable to work for the same employer for any length of time, because after a few years you'll have to go looking for another job. And a shame if by coincidence there happens to be a crisis on and there are absolutely no other jobs to be had. But the trade union movement believes that ‘flexicurity’ is good for everyone. Yet this isn't about 'modernisation' but rather an attempt to allow employers to dictate matters. So it's unbelievable that the unions have adopted such an idea.

Cooperating with the trade union movement?

If you list all of these developments, you could come to the conclusion that it makes no sense to devote a lot of time and energy to contacts with the trade union movement in Brussels. This would, however, be a mistake.

In the last few years there have been moments when the trade unions did indeed make a fist of things. This occurred in the response to the Port Services Directive and to the Services ('Bolkestein') Directive. Here were two instruments which would have led in each case to extremely adverse effects on the position of workers.

The rank-and-file wasn't prepared to put up with this and offered massive resistance: tens of thousands of dockworkers demonstrated on Rotterdam's Coolsingel against the Port Services Directive, while it also proved possible to organise large-scale protests in Brussels and Strasbourg.

The visibility of so many angry workers meant that the European institution could no longer ignore their interests. The Port Services Directive was withdrawn and the Services Directive amended.

So, it can be done! And that's why it's important to strengthen contacts with the trade union movement in Brussels. At the same time it's necessary to ensure that pressure on union representatives in Brussels is exerted from within and without: don't let yourself be seduced by the Brussels institutions, but listen to the rank-and-file, and listen well! Also – invest time and effort in European and international contacts. It will never be financially possible to defeat the multinationals' lobby, but if you can resist or force changes to legislation in Brussels, it will save you an enormous amount of work on the national level. On the other hand, if you let things pass at the European level, national governments will claim that unpopular legislation was unavoidable 'because of Brussels'. Investing in an active Brussels lobby thus, for the trade union movement, offers an immediate double return.

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