Understanding European Trade Unionism: Between Market, Class and Society


Richard Hyman

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    For Rebecca, who has helped me to a clearer vision


    This book has a long and complex genesis. Since the 1980s I have had a teaching and research interest in comparative European industrial relations, and in particular the task of grasping theoretically the distinctive national characteristics and evolution of trade unionism. In the 1990s I tried to focus in particular on the detailed development of unions in Britain and Germany. At the same time I was concerned to analyse the ways in which three contrasting traditions – trade unions as labour market actors, as vehicles of anti-capitalist mobilization and as agents of social integration – were transformed and partially fused in response to changed circumstances and new challenges. To explore the configuration of three ‘ideal types’ of unionism seemed to require three national cases; and fortuitously a colleague and I, in editing a text on industrial relations in Europe (Ferner and Hyman, 1992), had been forced into the unintended role of ‘experts’ on Italy.

    An invitation to contribute to a conference and subsequent publication on trade union ideologies provided the opportunity to work through some of these themes. The notion of a triangulation between market, class and society was born (Hyman, 1996a). It seemed clear to me that much needed to be developed; the article was in effect a book writ small.

    In undertaking this work my concern has been primarily with current issues: how do unions in hard times respond to almost impossible challenges? How far are traditions and inherited assumptions a resource, how far a constraint? To what extent can labour movements escape from their past and redefine their purpose and identity?

    To address such questions requires in itself an exercise in historical investigation and analysis. This is by no means an innocent endeavour. It has been said (Plumb, 1969: 17) that ‘the past is always a created ideology with a purpose, designed to control individuals, or motivate societies, or inspire classes. Nothing has been so corruptly used as concepts of the past.’ This work is not designed as a contribution to corruption. I recognize the truth of the old adage: people make their own history, but they do not make it just as they choose; they make it under circumstances encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The man with the beard had in mind a specific issue: how far people in society could shape their future to their own design. But as Plumb indicates, we also shape our own past (perhaps the better to control our future). Nevertheless, we do not make it just as we choose. ‘The historian is engaged in some kind of encounter with an evidence which is not infinitely malleable or subject to arbitrary manipulation’ (Thompson, 1978: 222). This is the spirit in which the present study is undertaken.

    A work of this kind is never an individual effort. Many people have provided insights which have helped me greatly, and in general I have tried to acknowledge my debts. Others have made valuable suggestions for improvement in my approach, for which I am genuinely grateful. If I have not always followed their ideas it is inevitably partly from obstinacy, even more from doubts as to my own capacity to keep more than three analytical balls in the air at one time, most of all because the time between conception and execution has already been more than enough to try the patience of any publisher.

    Plan of the Book

    In the introductory chapter I provide a brief exposition of the theme of the whole work: trade union identity, ideology and strategy as outcomes of a tension between orientations which address respectively the labour market, class relations and the constructive role of labour in society. These three elements are examined in turn in the chapters which follow. The approach is in part conceptual and analytical, in part historical and narrative; and the discussion draws on experience not only in the book's three focal countries but on Europe more generally (and occasionally further afield). These chapters are unequal in length. That on the market is the shortest: ‘business unionism’, the dominant tradition in the USA and Britain, is otherwise exceptional, and arguments presenting unions as primarily or exclusively economic actors are simple in themselves and open to relatively straightforward challenge. The conception of trade unions as class actors requires more extensive treatment, since this has been an important perspective over an extended period in much of Europe. The longest chapter addresses the role of unions as vehicles of social integration, because the issues involved are in many respects extremely complex, because it is necessary to address a particularly wide range of themes and literatures, and because the rhetoric of ‘social partnership’ has acquired such salience in contemporary Europe.

    There follow three chapters which consider the historical development, and current dilemmas, of trade union identity and ideology in three countries, the traditions of which can be seen as involving distinctive configurations of market, class and society. In developing these accounts I cannot refrain from drawing on the economists' notion of ‘stylized facts’. This term, as I understand it, denotes propositions which, if they were true, would make an analysis and argument more plausible, but which it would be impolite to confront with awkward counter-evidence of an empirical nature. Historians and sociologists are surely entitled to some analogous licence. In the case of the present work, none of the points I present is (as far as I am aware) untrue; but the accounts I give are necessarily selective. In particular, I focus on what I perceive as dominant tendencies at national level, largely neglecting differences between levels and sectors. While the reader will find plenty of detail, I have nevertheless attempted to develop strong, and certainly challengeable, arguments.

    My treatment of these three countries is again unequal. The longest chapter is on Britain: not only because I know it (and its sources) best, but also because of the long historical continuity of its labour movement, and the resulting multifaceted traditions which add special complexity to the story. For the same reasons, the relevant literature (I would suggest with confidence, if not total certainty) is far more extensive than for any other European country. Conversely, my briefer treatment of Germany and Italy might be seen as a reflection of relative ignorance. It could also be argued, more concretely, that their respective labour movements are of more recent origin than the British. Even more importantly, in both cases the fascist caesura, while not totally expunging the influence of earlier development, certainly entails that the trade unionism of the last half-century was in many respects a novel socio-political construct, and it is the developments of this relatively concentrated historical period which deserve primary attention for those concerned to comprehend the present.

    The final chapter is also brief, and attempts to draw my arguments together and to suggest some implications for trade union strategy in today's integrating Europe.

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