My speech at the Alter-EU conference “Beyond the Social Dimension of EMU”

Below you can read the speech I held at the panel discussion at yesterday’s Alter-EU conference. Or at least, it was my intention to tell exactly the text below but as usual, I more or less improvised on the themes in the text. The discussion of European economic policy was left for the discussion and I did not get to speak about the issue of climate change.


 (synopsis) In many European countries labour markets have changed. There are reasons of policy, demography and technological change behind this. Change in national systems of industrial relations or labour market relations have happened much slower. In many countries unions have seen their membership levels decline. To some extent, this is understandable, because the sectors these unions represent have been in decline. There are other sectors, where it has been much more difficult to organize members and engage in collective action. In many countries organizing part-time, temporary and other categories of atypical employees has been difficult. In my view, this is as much a consequence of changes in the way younger generations see labour unions as it is a consequence of unions clinging to the ‘standard, full-time employment’ as the norm to which they relate alternative employment relations. Thus, although the challenge is big, modern labour unions should acknowledge the practical relevance, in a legal sense, of changed employment relations and focus on those groups of employees that enjoy less strong labour rights than ‘standard, full-time’ employees.

In this short speech I wish to address some general issues of labour union representation in our time. The theoretical basis for this topic is my dissertation, in which I developed a synthesis of various currents of industrial relations literature. Through this theoretical framework it is possible to assess, in a broad and qualitive way, what factors contribute to changes in the representative capability of labour unions.

In an analysis using this framework, much weight is given to long-term developments and qualitative analysis of key moments in the interaction of labour unions with other societal actors. These can be decisive industrial conflicts, internal union developments, changes in the sector the union represents or changes in the legal context that influences the labour union environment. In short, seen over a certain period of time, there may be many issues that in their own way influence the representative capability of labour unions.

Often, though depending on the situation, the major factor is the state of the economy and the specific sector. To some extent this can be simplified to issues of employment, under-employment and unemployment.I will return to the issue of employment contracts a bit later. Another issue that is very important is the legal context. The mileage varies, but in many countries – at least in Europe – labour unions participate to varying extents in devising labour market policies. This is true for the national level as well as for the European Social Dialogue process. In this way, labour union representativeness in the context of legal developments is a reflexive dimension, beause labour unions are involved in the processes. Richard Hyman talked about the logic of influence versus the logic of representation, at least regarding the European dimensionI will return to this issue in a moment.

The challenges national and trans-European labour unions, or let’s say the labour movement, faces are quite big. On the one hand it is possible to some extent to see the influence of years of neo-liberal policies that have sought to minimize labour union involvement. On the other hand, there are more diffuse developments such as the influence of globalization, which may have contributed to an accellerated loss of jobs in European industry and attempt to downsize government or privatize state firms – which traditionally have high rates of organization. But also demographic changes, changes in and between generations have in many complicated ways affected the attractiveness of joining a union. Much research has focused on changing social norms and increased individualism. But perhaps the biggest influence is nonetheless the changing structure of the economy. Roughly speaking, blue collar jobs are disappearing or changing – traditional conveyor-belt work is quite rare in Europe.

Labour unions found it easiest to unionize those workers, who had a comparatively weak position through highly transferable skills. But these workers did have an advantage – large numbers. Although I now generalize, labour union organizing and representation has for a very long time relied on a kind of standard worker – full-time, often male, with comparatively low skills. Many unions nowadays still implicitly claim to represent the blue-collar worker – but it is a big question whether this worker still exists in Europe. My research has focused on the Finnish Paper Workers’ Union and in terms of skills, duties and content of work an old-school unionist would perhaps not recognize these employees as blue-collar workers.

Beyond these changes there has been also a wide increase of a-typical work. Here we can think of part-time work, temp agency work, outsourced work, all kinds of forms of work where there is some kind of intermediary between the employee and the employer who deals with issues of employment contract. Why are these employees problematic for unions? In short, because they are “moving targets” – unions cannot count on continuing commitment to the union because the employee moves from job to job in many cases.

And here I wish to return to the reflexivity of labour union representation in terms of labour law and labour policy. Since there is now a wide range of different employment contracts, labour unions have to focus on this issue more. Unions are in a difficult position indeed, because at the same time, they have to represent their current members, who might be in those typical standard employment relations. But on the whole, because this kind of employment relation is still in decline, unions must balance their attempts to represent both old and new members. Nonetheless, for example the Part-time Work Directive, which was born through the process of Social Dialogue, shows unions can have a beneficial influence regarding these kinds of non-standard employment relations as well.

I said these legal issues are reflexive, and by that I mean that through their membership base in previous time there have been certain priorities in advancing policy mainly relevant for that current membership. And that is how it should be with a representative organization. In Dutch we say ‘A general should not advance too far ahead of his troops.’ But a major programmatic aim of the labour movement should be to include those that are not currently represented by labour unions. By that I do not only mean those employees that currently have more insecure employment contracts but also the unemployed and those who are not classified as employees, e.g. Domestic workers and interns.

It will be far from easy to organize these various categories of working people, not in the least because they have many different interests and problems regarding work. But if labour unions broaden their political scope towards alternative employment relations as well, there may be a genuine interest in becoming a labour union member.

So, this is the major issue of union representation in terms of employment relations. But the union movement also has a role in public discussion on economic policies. So far, through the ETUC and many strikes in mainly the Southern European countries unions have had a critical voice in relation to European economic policy. Although important, I think it is important that beyond criticizing current policy unions should also focus on alternative economic policies and deconstructing the rationales for the present austerity policies.

As you have heard during this conference, European economic policy in this crisis has been based on bad science, bad analysis and bad rhethoric. Labour unions could do much more to counter this. Also in Finland labour unions have completely bought the mantra of export competitiveness and labour costs. The issue labour unions should focus on are domestic demand and employment. Preferably these issues should be tackled with a strong focus on the big question of climate change.

In my opinion, even traditional industry would benefit from such a strategy. Every country has different issues that are relevant, but a shift to renewable energy or bioenergy would be beneficial for industry as well and it might well be a growth industry of the future for countries such as Finland. Furthermore, although more consumption is not a sensible goal, a focus on domestic demand does do much to re-balance income inequality between domestic and export sectors.

Regarding the eurocrisis, the window of opportunity for either reconstructing the EMU or perhaps leaving it has probably closed. This nonetheless still leaves us with the potential of the European Investment Bank to spur green investment and positive economic policies. I don’t know if it is in any way possible to reach full employment, although some economic currents think it is possible. But I do think there are within the current setting possibilities to create non-destructive economic policies. And labour unions should promote these. Thank you.


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