Academic journal article Capital & Class

Beyond "Political Economism': New Identities for Unions in Western Europe?

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Beyond "Political Economism': New Identities for Unions in Western Europe?

Article excerpt

It is necessary to direct one's attention violently towards the present as it is, if one wishes to transform it. Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.

Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks (1971 : 175)


The question of union identity has been a recurrent theme in comparative and historical labour studies. The concept has allowed the development of union typologies that differentiate usefully between divergent ideological orientations, membership bases, organising strategies and institutional forms. The work of Richard Hyman has been central to the task of exploring how union identities have been impacted by the dynamics and crises of contemporary capitalist development. Over the past three decades, Hyman has charted the increasing convergence of British and European unions around an identity of 'political economism' in the context of 'Keynesianism' or 'Fordism'. He has analysed the crisis and decomposition of this identity in the context of neoliberal restructuring and the emergence of 'ned- or 'post-Fordism' and a range of potential new and alternative union identities made possible by the 'variable geometry' of European integration. It would be wrong to dispute the seminal nature of Hyman's work on European unionism, or to deny the agenda-setting status of his contribution to critical labour studies and industrial relations. From a critical Marxist perspective, however, there are some tensions, omissions and contradictions in the work of Hyman. Most notably, Hyman has drawn on the 'regulation approach' and, as a consequence, has seriously underestimated the contradictory and crisis-ridden environment in which European unionism has developed, and the complex patterns of continuity and change underpinning contemporary forms of European unionism.

In this article, we engage with the work of Hyman on union identity and European integration in order to develop a critical assessment of the crisis and decomposition of 'political economism' and the potential for alternative forms of union orientation in the context of European integration. We begin with an appreciative review of Hyman's work on union identity and European integration. This work is marked by his critical embrace of the 'Social Europe' agenda and the ways in which this has been underpinned by his analysis of changing union identities and the potential for union renewal based on the 'social' dimension of union strategy. In the subsequent section, we suggest that there are theoretical problems with Hyman's model of 'union identity' which, linked to his largely uncritical embrace of the regulation approach and his model of 'civil society', tend to undermine his approach to the politics of contemporary European unionism. In the next section, we present an alternative conceptual framework for understanding the crisis of 'political economism' in the context of European integration. We suggest that a more nuanced analysis of contemporary European unionism can be developed by charting the reorientation of European unions along the dimensions of 'accommodation' or 'opposition' to neoliberalism and the focus on either 'national' and 'international' modes of organisation and mobilisation. We conclude with a critical discussion of the conceptual and theoretical problems underpinning Hyman's model of union identity in contemporary Europe, and suggest that these can be overcome with the adoption of a more critical conceptualisation of 'European civil society'.

The promise of European integration: Unionism in a warmer climate?

Since the 1980s, there has been increasing interest amongst union activists and commentators in the progressive potential of European institutions. For many union leaders, 'Social Europe' has come to symbolise a possible brighter future for British unions in which unions can achieve the status of social partner and substantive social rights for their members. This process, it is argued, will serve as a counterweight to neoliberal globalisation and so produce a civilised and humanised capitalism (see, for example, TUC, 2006). …

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