PO2212 Issues in Contemporary European Politics

Week 8 Industrial Conflict and Trades Unions

Definitions of Industrial Conflict

'Industrial' in this context means to do with the workplace - so it covers the service sector as well as mining, manufacturing, transport etc.
Political science usually concentrates on the second type of industrial conflict and incorporates trades unions into the study of political parties or pressure groups. Sociology, economics and business studies study employee/employer relations in the workplace. History looks at major trades union struggles and at trades unions within broader social movements.
I want us to put workers as workers and trades unions as their representative organisations more centrally into political science and to examine industrial conflict as a major form of political conflict.

Industrial Conflict in Eastern Europe before collapse of communism

According to Pravda & Ruble (1986)
In the Soviet Union, Lenin developed theory of dual functioning of trades unions in 1921 - trades unions should encourage labour productivity and protect workers from harsh treatment by managers.
Leninist theory assumed no cleavage between interests of workers and interests of state as employer - there might be short term incompatibility of interests but could be solved in national interest.

The All Union Central Trades Union Council (AUCTUC) represented 98% of labour force and was supposed to be consulted by government on all labour issues. It also administered the state social insurance fund, & a range of social & cultural provision, monitored implementation of labour law, mada annual collective agreements with management at enterprise level, had veto over dismissal & distribution of bonuses.

In practice, trades unions tended to favour agreement with management rather than conflict - they put the demands of production before the defence of workers interests. Some changes in 1970s & 1980s - need for more efficient and intensive production - more pressure on workers - workers more educated - workers became more critical of managements and of trades unions siding with managements.

1977 Association of Free Trades Unions set up
1978 Free Interprofessional Association of Workers set up
Leaders were imprisoned or sent to psychiatric hospitals.

1989 Miners Strike - won concessions on wages & plant autonomy Leader of AUCTUC said that official unions had not done enough to protect interests of workers - from this point, degree of state interference in official unions was reduced.

1991 National Miners strike - had both political & industrial demands - proposals made to form independent trades union

Pravda & Ruble argue that nature of unions before communism influences degree of autonomy under communism

According to B Misztal on Solidarity in Poland (1984)
Solidarity was more like a social movement than a trades union.
A number of writers argue that it brought together workers' protests and intellectuals' protests - Misztal also mentions Papal visit of 1979 - wave of strikes in 1980.

Industrial Conflict in Eastern Europe after collapse of communism

According to Kazimierz Kloc on Poland (Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No 44 1993)
Industrial conflicts of early 1990s characteristic of transition from one economic system to another - fear of unemployment, consequences of restructuring & living standards
1992 Long & bitter Miners strike in Silesia Autumn 1992
Feb 1993 Some unions agreed with government to have representation on boards rather than workers councils - rejected by radical half of Solidarity (Solidarity 80)

According to Simon Clarke on Russia (Journal of Communist Studies 9/4 1993)
Independent unions are weak - generally supported Yeltsin in 1991 but get very little from government
March 1992 Law on Collective Agreements - gave equal rights to all properly constituted trades unions

See The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions report on the Russian Federation for 2003

According to Frank Hantke, (2001) 'Poland's Trade Unions: Decline and Division', Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No. 70, only 15% of workers in Poland were in unions in 1999.
Unionized workers are predeominantly in the public sector or in big ex-State enterprises.
Unemployment is 16% and rising. Poland's Labour Code gives significant protection to workers but tends not to be implemented at workplace level because of union weakness.
There are two trade union federations - Solidarity and OPZZ. Former associated with anti-communist right and latter with Social Democrats.

In 2002, health care workers at Rydygier hospital in Lower Silesia, Poland went on hunger strike over non-payment of wages.

On the other hand, an article entitled 'Anti-social packages; Polish trade unions' in the Economist 23/3/02, argues that Polish trades unions are strong enough to impose restrictions on privatisation deals.
For example, the power unions were able to get a ten-year moratorium on layoffs from Belgium's Tractebel in 2000 when it bought a stake in the Polaniec power plant.

Tasks for Students Put the case for and against such agreements.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions report on Poland for 2003 says 'The Labour Code was amended in a 'business-friendly' fashion, with the consequent risk of negative impacts on trade union rights. Some violations were reported, as the law remains inadequate to protect trade unionists'.

Western Europe


In analysing patterns of industrial conflict in Western Europe, it is helpful to look first at the general economic and political context of the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s in turn.

Colin Crouch in 'The Future Prospects for Trades Unions in Western Europe' Political Quarterly 1986 says that most countries except Austria & Switzerland saw a major rise in industrial conflict in the late 1960s.
During the 1970s there was increased incorporation of unions into national policy making.
The recession and economic restructuring of the 1980s involved

Crouch adds that the growth of international capital markets in the 1980s led to more conformity in national economic policy - impacted on the Mitterrand government in France 1981-86 - this conformity created a climate hotile to union interests.

Tasks for Students

Why was there an increase in industrial conflict in Western Europe in the late 1960s?

Can you make any connections between the last point made by Crouch and the policy on trades unions of the UK Conservative governments in the 1980s?

Membership, Industrial Action and Other Issues

Brown, writing in Trades Unions in British Politics by Pimlott and Cook 1991 points out that the proportion of workers who were members of trades unions in the UK fell from 48% in the UK in 1970 to 43% in 1985.
In France, membership declined from 23% in 1970 too 19% in 1980.
But in West Germany the figure stayed at 37% between 1970 & 1985.
In Sweden, union membership went up from 74% in 1970 to 88% in 1985.

He also points out that the number of working days lost in the UK through strikes fell from 629 per 1000 employees in 1970-74 (2917 strikes) to 174 per 100 employees in 1985-89 (887 strikes)

There were waves of strikes across Europe in the first half of the 1990s.
Examples include strikes against government austerity programmes in Italy, Spain and Belguim in the autumn of 1993.
In France in March 1994, the 3 union confederations joined together in a strike against lower wages for young people.
In Italy in autumn 1994 there were general strikes against budget proposals to cut pensions and the health service.

Tasks for Students

Using online newspapers http://asp.wlv.ac.uk/Level4.asp?UserType=6&Level4=911
find out about more recent strikes in Western Europe.

Remember to distinguish between one day strikes which are usually called to protest against some aspect of government or employer policy and longer strikes in specific industries which usually involve some demands about pay or conditions or job security.

Martine Bulard (1999) in 'Missed Opportunity for Job Creation: What price the 35-hour week?' says that legislation to reduce the working week to 35 hours will not reduce unemployment significantly. Instead, it is likely to be used to 'institutionalise atypical working arrangements and non-standard working hours'.
She says that 'almost a half of all employees work regularly or occasionally on Saturday. The percentage of employees required to work on Sunday rose from 20.7 in 1990 to 25.1 in 1998 - no fewer than one in four.
Between 5 and 6 million employees do not regularly have two consecutive rest days (4). Similarly, the number of employees subject to irregular work schedules - ie the whim and goodwill of their bosses - rose by half from 1990 to 1998'.

An article in the Economist 6/9/03. 'Ever weaker: Germany's trade unions' points out that relations between the German government and the trades unions are deteriorating. Trades unions are less powerful because membership rates have declined from 32% in 1991 to 20%.
But the article goes on to say 'Whether weak unions are good for Germany remains to be seen. They have helped to preserve industrial harmony in the past. Between 1992 and 2001, the country lost a mere nine working days a year per 1,000 workers to strikes, against 22 days in Britain and 48 in the United States. If the unions slump too much, Germany may lose one of the few competitive edges it still has'.
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