The ETUC in the Coming Decade – Future challenges and opportunities

Brussels, 12/01/2010

As an American President once said – forecasting is difficult, especially about the future.

I am asked tonight to reflect on the ETUC in the next decade – in effect, an ETUC version of the 2020 exercise launched by the President of the European Commission recently.

My first reflection is related to that 2020 exercise. It is an unavoidable fact that the EU’s future will have a big impact on the future of the ETUC and trade unionism at European level.

We are of course autonomous and trade unionism must never rely on the rhythms and policies of government.

But if the EU strengthens, if the new Lisbon Treaty provides a spring board for the further integration of Europe, particularly into economic policy, then that will have huge implications for the ETUC.

On the other hand, if the national level strengthens, and there have been signs of that in the current recession as governments have scrambled to prop up their banking systems and particular industries like the automobile industry, then the ETUC will have to live in a climate where unions are thinking nationally rather than on the European level.

That would be a mistake. It is important that the process of European integration strengthens. As Jacques Delors once put it, Europe is like a riding bicycle – you stop pedalling and you fall off.

If the EU is not to progress, then the status quo will not continue; instead, the national dimension will strengthen and Europe will go into reverse.

This must not be allowed to happen. The world is changing rapidly. New, great powers are emerging – a development which in the past has always led to upheaval and often to war, as the arrivistes push their way to a prominent role on the world’s stage. The first half of the 20th century was deeply scarred by this experience.

In this new, emerging world order, individual European countries, even the largest, are no more than medium sized powers, rather rich, it is true, at least those from Western Europe, but not formidable in other respects when ranged against, say, China and India. Nor is there much sign that the European model of society – market economies combined with strong welfare states and commitments to collective bargaining and public services – is attracting many disciples among the developing nations, although parts of Latin America can look promising.

So European countries cannot take their historic pre-eminence for granted. Only 100 years ago, there were only six countries in the world which were not in Europe, were not European colonies or former colonies (name them). That shows how dominant the countries of Europe were.

We neither want nor expect any return to the world of 100 years ago but the trade union case for European integration rests on maximising our influence on the agenda of today – equality and welfare, sustainable economies, a sustainable environment, democratic control over entrepreneurs and multi-national companies – all areas which need common action at EU level and at world level too. Nation states cannot act effectively on these issues, the EU with 30% of the world’s GDP can do so.

So the future direction of the EU will have a big influence on the future of the ETUC. More integration, especially on economic policy will strengthen the need for a more effective social dialogue at EU level. It will make the case for a European wide labour market which needs to be matched by EU level institutions of welfare, social security, collective bargaining, and active labour market policy.

National centres and national unions will need to invest more in the ETUC and the industry federations. And they will also need to accord greater scope for action to reach agreement at the EU level. National unions will not find that an easy process as some of them do not currently find the European social dialogue a comfortable process either.

Trade unionism today finds itself besieged by two trends – globalisation and individualism. Globalisation has many positive features but negative ones too. There are winners and losers. But among the losers have been the industrial workers of Europe who have seen the outsourcing of their jobs to China and India and other Asian economies where pay is cheap.

At the same time, we are all aware of the changing sociology of work with large rises in service employment and declines in the industrial sector. Old working class communities have been disrupted; solidarity has been affected by social changes including multi-culturalism, more people experience higher education and do professional, rather than blue collar work. They are more individualistic, richer, and more mobile than their parents and grandparents. Less group minded, class minded and community minded – more individualistic.

The challenge for Europe’s unions and the ETUC is to make trade unionism as natural for our sons and daughters as it has been for our parents and grandparents.

I once chaired a Commission which was set up to review the performance of the British co-operative movement. In one piece of evidence, it was said that the co-op was where my grandmother shopped, my mother went occasionally and I never go. In fact the British co-op movement is turning itself around – and the trade union movement in Europe must do the same if we are not to lose representativity and strength.

We need that strength on the great issues of our day
- rebuilding industry and the economy more generally after the damage done in the current crisis;
- influencing policy towards full employment, tackling inequality, and building welfare and social security;
- contructing a labour market in the EU which is inclusive, fair, and is marked by strong, effective trade unions and regulation which rewards long-term investment, not short-term deal-makers;
- devising a fair transition for all the workers whose jobs will be affected by climate change.

These are just some of the key points on our lengthy agenda. Congratulations to Peter on his birthday. I look forward to him playing a leading role in confronting, and confounding, the challenges that we face.

Thank you.