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2 March 2018

Strong trade unions are a sign of solidarity among workers

Do trade unions encourage the dualization of the labour market? Some criticise them for neglecting those in precarious employment, focusing instead on defending only the interests of their members, primarily workers in ‘good jobs’. A study by an international team of industrial relations researchers argues against these clichés. On 14 February two university lecturers presented the key results of this research at an ETUI monthly forum.

Nathan Lillie of the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) pointed out that the presence of strong trade unions is, on the contrary, a sign of solidarity among workers, especially when accompanied by robust collective bargaining institutions. A professor of social and public policies, he presented two computer graphics representing the key factors in a ‘vicious circle’ of precarious work, on the one hand, and a ‘virtuous circle’ preventing precarious work, on the other hand (see PowerPoint presentation below).

The main factors in the ‘virtuous circle’ are, on the one hand, trade unions with strong ‘institutional power’ and ‘associational power’, and on the other, employers who do not exploit workforce divisions and who make scarce use of ‘exit options’, e.g. employing workers under atypical contracts or using subcontractors with no union representation.

This work is set out in detail in Reconstructing Solidarity: Labour Unions, Precarious Work, and the Politics of Institutional Change in Europe, published on 18 January 2018 by Oxford University Press.

The book presents case studies that compare the struggles of trade unions in 14 European countries in industries such as local administration, retail, music, metalworking, chemicals, meatpacking and logistics.

Valeria Pulignano, a professor of labour sociology and industrial relations at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), presented a number of these case studies. She analysed the way in which the Belgian and German trade unions in the chemical and metal sectors have been able to maintain solidarity between different categories of workers within a single industrial group. The sociologist noted that the Belgian trade unions have been more capable of withstanding the pressure from employers by making use of the institutional power conferred on them by Belgium’s collective bargaining system. According to Mrs Pulignano, the German system of co-determination is less effective at blocking employers’ strategies to divide workers.

The capacity of trade unions to forge and maintain solidarity among workers also depends on elements linked to the individual aspirations of certain groups of workers. In this regard, Mrs Pulignano pointed out that the creative and music industry has a relatively individualistic culture.

Ben Egan, an adviser from the European Trade Union Confederation who had been invited to comment on the study, highlighted the same characteristic among young workers in the digital sector, many of whom are receptive to the discourse on the supposed advantages of working for oneself. Nathan Lillie makes a similar observation in the section of his study on Albanian migrant workers in Italy: ‘They have to a very large extent internalised the discourse on entrepreneurship. It is a source of pride for them’.

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