Trade Union Responses To The Attack Of The EU Against Wages

Anne Dufresne

Anne Dufresne

Wages, and thus trade unions, are being violently attacked by European authorities. Until now, wages have remained an exclusively national issue as a negotiated right at the very core of the trade unions’ identity. It had been excluded from the EU’s competences since the Maastricht Treaty. Yet, for approximatly two years, with the implementation of the new ‘European economic governance’ (Pact for the Euro, Six-Pack,..), the economic actors of the EU have kidnapped wages. The ECB, DG ECFIN and the ECOFIN Council transformed it into a statistic figure of ‘Unit labour cost (ULC)’, measured as an indicator that should be contained in order to improve competitiveness. A threshold of wage increases should be respected to avoid a financial penalty. So, from a negotiated right at national level, wages have become a European market price!

According to the European Council ‘the obstacles of institutional nature to a flexible adjustment of prices and salaries to market conditions (must be) suppressed’. And this is why since 2010, wage institutions have been suffering all over Europe, more or less violently so depending on the state of subordination of that particular country to the EU: with the authoritarian interventions of the Troika (Commission, ECB, IMF) and its compulsory austerity plans in the so-called ‘peripheral countries’ of the South, the East and in Ireland (unilateral reduction of minimum wages, brutal cuts in public services) or through recommendations of the Commission in the countries of the North (questioning of the indexation and wage stop in Belgium, reduction of minimum wages in France ,….). Dismantling collective bargaining systems that people fought for like this is equal to a frontal attack on the very existence of trade unions in each of the member states: the Commission makes no secret about this and indicated in a recent report of DG ECFIN that it should be possible ‘to promote measures that lead to a global reduction of the ability that trade unions have to set wages’ (2012).  As they are facing this threat, how do European trade unions fight back?

For too long, wages have remained a taboo issue for the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which preferred the European Social Dialogue, excluding precisely wages. But the frontal attack perpetrated by the EU brought the subject to the foreground. In April 2008, the ETUC organised the first European demonstration with the slogan ‘increasing salaries and better sharing of profits’, and not a vague slogan such as ‘for a Social Europe’. In May 2011, at its latest Congress in Athens, the ETUC was able to express a common diagnosis by the vast majority of European trade unions (only CFDT was of a different opinion): it clearly opposed the Commission and its governance and demanded the stop of the anti-salary bulldozer of the EU. So, if there is a real consensus of the trade unions to refuse a persistent wage austerity, one question remains: how can we proceed? What could be the trade unions’ counter-strategy?

A first answer goes back to the nineties. The ETUC, following the track of the European Metalworkers Federation– which in the meantime merged in the Federation of European Industries, with the chemical and textile Federations – had developed a strategy to fight wage dumping: the coordination of collective bargaining. The idea was to promote a ‘union’ wage norm, according to which real wages should at least increase in parallel with the increase of productivity. While the EU (regardless of inflation) now promotes nominal wages ‘according to productivity’ and pleads for a downwards harmonisation all over Europe, it is important to update this union norm and to reinforce the European coordination attempts by trade unions. A more offensive approach against the current European wage policy would be to promote the reinforcement of all collective bargaining institutions in the different countries in order to back a European growth policy driven by wage increases.

A second line of inquiry: the European minimum wage, is a watchword that could impose itself given the differences in wages paid within the EU and the lack of a minimum level in some countries. A European regulation allowing for a relative increase in all countries could be the introduction of a minimum wage calculated in relation to the national average wage: 50% in the short-term and then 60% in the longer term. Trade unions in big countries are broadly in favour: French organisations with the ‘SMIC’ model, English unions with the success of their recently obtained minimum and the German ones, that are looking for a universal standard before the next elections. Nevertheless, the ‘no front’, with the Italians and the Scandinavians in particular, is clearly against this because they fear that their bargaining systems of minimum sectoral wages, that are often very high, might suffer. Their veto has been blocking all demands in this matter since the beginning of the century. The current impossibility to find an agreement on this issue, despite the ever increasing assaults against wages, shows that there is still a long way to go before obtaining a common bargaining dynamic at the transnational level.

So lots of questions are left over: how can we break the deadlock of national withdrawal by trade unions? How can we avoid an imbalance increase between countries, social tensions and eventually the stalemate of the trade union movement? How can we create a new balance of power in response to the economic players of the EU?

The challenges this implies are huge: on the one hand, the implementation of a strategy of ‘Europeanisation’ of social movements, already underway with the increasingly rapid succession of decentralised movements. A good example was the transnational strike of 14 November 2012, which was new because it was organised simultaneously in all southern countries, hit most severely by austerity measures. On the other hand, the social partners should regain their power with respect to wages. If wages are to be dealt with at EU level then they are the only ones who can manage this and not the economic actors which pursue a policy of surveillance of wage moderation. This is likely to be a long way…

This article is part of the EU Social Dimension expert sourcing project jointly organised by SEJ, the ETUCIG Metall, the Hans Böckler Stiftung, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Lasaire.


  1. Luke says

    How can you ‘Europeanize’ social movements without a democratically elected European executive? This would in turn require a European common culture, language, taxation system and institutions to function as an effective democratic polity to manage capitalism in voters interests. The EU is made up of vastly divergent national institutions regarding wage bargaining, education and vocational training, contracting law, corporate governance, employer organisation and workplace organization that have been developed over long historical trajectories by democratic governments in the post-war period. Some of these institutions date back in their development trajectories to during or before the revolutions of 1848 such as the craft chambers, occupational labour markets, compulsory local chambers of commerce and incomplete firm contracting law found in much of Northern Europe.

    Countries under attack from the Troika are better off in the long run through exiting the euro and taking ownership over their monetary policy, fiscal policy, political economies and development trajectories. The Troika and the singe currency are nothing more than tools of finance capital which seek to shift effective policy making away from national voters to supranational “experts” who work on behalf of banks using neoclassical theory as they see fit to advance the interests of finance capital. Capitalism cannot be managed as an objective economy by technical experts working in an impartial environment, capitalism is a society where the social relations of production are permanently contested by voters, social movements and capital interests.

    • charlie says

      You do not need an institutional framework or a democratic assembly when you are being attacked- you just unite and fight back! Because there is clearly a European attack on wages and workers, despite whatever is written in some treaties, then there will be a European counter-attack by workers.

  2. Theo Papadopoulos says

    Thank you for this much needed analysis. There is also another dimension in the ongoing attack against labour unions and national collective agreements . It involves a series of rulings of the European Court of Justice regarding the right of companies to offer services and/or post workers across-borders. For anyone interested, the following forthcoming publication traces the history and implications of these rulings and arrives at almost identical conclusions as far as the challenges for TUs are concerned: Papadopoulos, T. and Roumpakis, A.(2013) The meta-regulation of European industrial relations : power shifts, institutional dynamics and the emergence of regulatory competition among EU Member States, in International Labour Review. Vol. 152, no. 2

  3. bestman says

    europe is becoming more & more EUSSR and will kill itself. the more nonsense we hear from brussels the quicker a tough confrontation will arise thats for sure. it will not take much more than what we have to-day to jump the barrier. already in belgium once again Taxes is the only word this government knows. these taxes will create even more austerity !!!!and already 11.2% more unemployment among youngsters in belgium over 1 year. The sleeping guys in brussels must be evacuated as quickly a possible without any bonus!!not like the bankers,
    because their laws & initiatives are dictated by the powerfull financial institutions. read how draghi manoeuvered italy into europe with false balance sheets!!! lets get rid of them and choose in a democratic election people with courage, honnesty, leaders with a real view on the future and not the little monkeys waiting for their big salaries because oh brother they behaved so well towards the financial institutions.