Over the last few decades, trade unions in most European countries (a noteworthy exception being Belgium) have suffered a more or less drastic drop in membership – a trend that has been barely affected in either direction by the advent of economic and financial crisis in 2007. But this ‘stability’ does not go far enough to enable us to make any final judgement concerning ‘the state of the trade unions’.
For a better understanding, it is necessary to analyse the three pillars of trade unionism and their interactions. The first aforementioned such pillar is membership size: the unions’ artillery power, so to speak. The second is formed by the institutions that enable collectively agreed gains (whether national or sectoral and including minimum wage provisions) to be extended to as large a section of the workforce as possible. The third pillar, finally, consists of the links between trade unions and political parties.
In relation to the drop in trade union membership, the matter can be approached from an opposite angle. Indeed, comparing this trend with that of other organisations constitutive of our democratic systems, we might well ask how it is that trade unions retain as many members as they do, given the plummeting membership figures of political parties: in the United Kingdom, for example, members of political parties currently total 534,000, while the TUC still has over 5.7m members. British party political membership has fallen by almost 70% in thirty years.
In Portugal, 340,000 people belong to a political party while 960,000 are trade union members. Nor should it be forgotten that Portugal, alongside Spain and Greece, is one of the few countries where – since the transition to democracy in the 1970s – rather few members leave their political party compared to other countries such as the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, or Norway, where the ‘political party drop-out rate’ over the last thirty years has been around 65%. This comparison is not made in any effort to conceal the magnitude of the trade unions’ membership losses but it does enable the phenomenon to be viewed from a different angle.
Nor does the comparison lessen in any way the trade unions’ need for an active recruitment strategy – even if such a strategy proves powerless to alter the underlying trend, and the best policies imaginable could never produce a return to former levels of trade union density. The point, simply, is that the trade unions are not faring so very badly, compared to the political parties, given the aversion to collective organisation displayed by the new generation of young people.
Regarding the second aspect, the institutions, the picture is extremely mixed. In most countries, according to the latest ‘industrial relations in Europe’ data from the European Commission, collective bargaining coverage rates are both stable and quite high. Two groups of countries stand out, however: those of central and eastern Europe where collective bargaining institutions were weak and have become even weaker since the crisis; and those receiving European financial assistance and hence under Troika control (Greece, Portugal, Ireland).
The same is true of Spain, where important changes implemented by governments have led to significant drops in the numbers of workers covered by collective agreements. Likewise with Romania in the wake of the new labour code endorsed by the American Chamber of Commerce and with Hungary since changes introduced by the Orban government in 2012. The weakening of the trade unions is in these cases the result of a clear political will to reduce the clout of institutionalised solidarity.
This brings us to the third point, the link between trade unions and political parties. Most of the trade unions in Europe have no formal party links; they are independent and yet ‘like-minded’ in a manner that introduces to public debate topics close to trade unionists’ hearts or aimed at facilitating collective bargaining and compromises with employers in a framework of social dialogue.
This is where the fracture – albeit not ubiquitous – seems most pronounced. Increasing numbers of left-wing or centre-left governments no longer see eye-to-eye with the trade unions. The choice made by the Italian government, under the socialist Matteo Renzi, to refrain from consulting the social partners is emblematic of a new stance; and the determination of the Belgian government (in a country steeped in ‘social concertation’ practices) to circumvent the social partners, or to partially discount the outcome of their negotiations, is equally symbolic of the advent of a new ballgame.
Then there are the newly emerging parties, Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. While these lack the kind of historic relations with the trade unions that characterised traditional social-democratic parties, the situation forged by recent developments is one that can evolve. Syriza has, after all, promised to restore the institutional collective bargaining machinery in Greece. What we are seeing here is the positive side of new electoral behaviour that in other cases has led to a resurgence of right-wing votes.
The trade unions are in crisis; of that there can be no doubt. Yet we could do with some proper instruments to measure their representativeness; and we must take account of government action – or inaction – as well as seeking to gain a better understanding of the general political environment.