The Puzzle of Trade Union Strength in Western Europe since 1980

By Kelly, John; Hamann, Kerstin | Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, April 2010 | Go to article overview

The Puzzle of Trade Union Strength in Western Europe since 1980


Kelly, John, Hamann, Kerstin, Indian Journal of Industrial Relations


Introduction

The period between 1945 and the early 1970s has been referred to as the 'Golden Age of Capitalism' (Marglin & Schor 1990). Most countries that comprised what was then known as the advanced capitalist world Western Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia recorded sustained and substantial rates of economic growth for over two decades. Living standards, measured by real incomes, ownership of consumer goods and health indices increased dramatically for millions of people (Marglin & Schor 1990). This period also represented a golden age of trade unionism in which membership, density, strike activity and economic and political bargaining power reached hitherto unprecedented levels (Shalev 1992, Western 1997). Some European governments in the 1970s in Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom for example--responded to union power by creating corporatist policymaking committees designed to negotiate union wage restraint in exchange for improved legal rights and welfare provision (Schmitter & Lehmbruch 1979). Since the early 1980s however unions across the advanced capitalist world have witnessed prolonged membership decline, a reduction in bargaining power in the context of a globalizing economy and neo-liberal government policies, and a significant decline in strike rates. The world recession that began in 2008 appears to have dealt a further blow to unions already weakened by years of membership loss.

However, we argue that whilst recent economic and political developments have undoubtedly posed serious threats to trade unions, these can also be viewed as opportunities for trade union revitalization (Behrens, Hamann & Hurd 2004). We show that unions' weakening in organisational strength and economic bargaining power has in some cases been counterbalanced by the re-emergence of tripartite relations between governments, unions and employers and by the resurgence of general strikes against government policies. We interpret union involvement in tripartite talks and their continuing capacity to mobilize members and supporters in general strikes as evidence that some union movements have recognized the existence of opportunities in the midst of adversity. After a brief recap of the familiar dimensions of trade union decline we set out a number of theoretical propositions that enable us to identify contemporary sources of trade union power. We also present fresh evidence on recent patterns of union-government negotiations in Western Europe and on general strikes designed to influence government policy.

Parameters of Trade Union Decline

Evidence from 16 Western European countries as well as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand shows that trade union density declined between 1980 and 2007 in all but two cases: Finland (up one percentage point from 69% to 70%) and Spain (up eight points from 7% to 15%) (Barratt 2009, Hamann & Kelly 2008). The mean, unweighted rate of density decline 1980-2007 is 15.4 percentage points. It is true that the decline has been far more pronounced in the private sector compared to the public sector and that the overall rate of decline has been quite modest in some countries, such as Belgium (- 1 point, from 54% to 53%), Norway (- 4 points, from 58% to 54%) and Canada (6 points, from 35% to 29%) but these national cases are unusual. It is also true that between 1980 and 2004 collective bargaining coverage has remained remarkably stable in most of Western Europe at approximately 80-90% of employees (Hamann & Kelly 2008). However, this institutional stability masks a significant erosion of trade union power, made evident by trends in national income distribution and in strike rates. Between 1960 and 1980 the wage share of value added in manufacturing industry in 15 OECD countries rose from 66% to 74% as union militancy shifted the distribution of national income away from profits and into wages and salaries. However between 1980 and 2000, as trade union membership declined, the distribution of national income shifted radically back in favour of owners of capital: wage share fell steadily and by 2000 had reached 65%, despite the economic growth and low unemployment of the mid-late 1990s (Glyn 2006: 7). …

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