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Trade Unions Today and Tomorrow: Vol. 1, Trade Unions in a Changing Europe; Vol. 2, Trade Unions in a Changing Workplace.

The plight of European unions

Trade Unions Today and Tomorrow: Vol. 1, Trade Unions in a Changing Europe; Vol. 2, Trade Unions in a Changing Workplace. Edited by Georges Spyropoulos.

Unions under stress--if not in crisis--is the theme which unifies this collection of papers. The setting is Western Europe in the 1980's. Because Western European labor movements have long stood for "the ideal-type," their unsettled state may be ushering in a new era in industrial relations, just as the 1980's represented a new order for American unions for largely the same root causes.

This work consists of approximately 30 research papers, essays, commentaries, and polemics. The authors are trade union professionals and officials and university scholars representing every region of Western Europe. The editor is a former official of the International Labour Organization. All perceive the union as indispensable in a democratic industrial society. The predicament of trade unionism and the labor movement is seen in some measure as a result of their own inadequacies, but in larger measure through overarching economic forces beyond their control.

The papers were originally presented at a conference sponsored by the European Center for Work and Society in Maastricht, The Netherlands in 1985. The center merits commendation for bringing together these papers in an attractive English-language edition. The interlocutor, so to speak, is Georges Spyropoulos, whose commentaries throughout the two volumes do much to impart coherence and structure to an otherwise heterogenous collection.

The sources of the crisis are internationalization of markets, technological restructuring, demographic changes in the labor market, the erosion of the welfare state, and the rise of conservative governments to power, ending the long postwar hegemony of social democracy. All of these elements have fused to produce unprecedentedly high levels of unemployment alien to the longstanding reign of full employment as the centerpiece of postwar European economic policy. Unemployment has necessarily led to a weakening of union power in collective and political bargaining. In the large, this is the American story as well except that the American union-free experience is not replicated in Western Europe with the possible exception of the United Kingdom.

A book review can only hint at the diversities reflected in the papers. "Country profiles" of Denmark and The Netherlands note the breach and possible breakdown in the historic social contract relationships. Paradoxically, union influence in France has deteriorated with the Left's access to political power. Neither Spanish nor Greek unions have been able to shake off the lethargy acquired in Fascist and quasi-Fascist times.

A comparison between the coal strikes of 1974 and 1984-85 dramatizes how far the fortunes of British unionism have fallen and reflects the disarray of the larger labor movement. Another set of cases on multinational bargaining demonstrates the gap between the rhetoric of international class solidarity and the reality of national union power and national interest.

"New Managerial Strategies and the Trade Union Response" is the most interesting section. Drawn from British experience, the parallel to the "union-free" strategy in the United States is the strongest in Western Europe. The mortal challenge to British unionism has come, however, from the Thatcher government, not primarily from British employers, who may very well believe that the government has gone too far.

In ways atypical of British industrial relations, American and Japanese firms in Britain have sought to "marginalize external union influence or attempt to forestall union organization altogether" (Vol. II, p. 65). Nor has unionism fared much better in the institutionalized modes of participation as evident in the French "direct expression" groups and in a series of British cases. Flexibility in the labor market, according to a French scholar, is the "boss' weapon in a class war" to dismantle union power and revive "management and executive power" (Vol. II, p. 145).

The strong forte of the various papers is that they confront the sources of union vulnerability squarely: rhetoric and ideology out of touch with reality, union structures and resources unequal to the demands of the new industrial relations, and union militancy unrelated to the availability of union resources.

The mainline unions of Western Europe need have no qualms about taking stock of their shortcomings. In a sense, they are victims of their own successes in contributing to a reconstructed Europe which now rivals the United States in most of the success indicators, except unemployment.

In general, most of the papers and commentaries reflect favorably on the capacity of trade union scholars and practitioners and their associates to make responsible assessments of where they are at this critical juncture of events, even if it hurts. JACK BARBASH Professor of economics and industrial relations (Emeritus), University of Wisconsin, Madison, and visiting professor, University of California, Davis
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Barbash, Jack
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1989
Words:780
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