The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Why has the European labor movement largely failed to politicize the EU’s new economic governance regime?

The creation of the new European governance regime requires an explanation. In contrast to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the EU’s business and political leaders rejected until very recently the need for any coordination in the field of industrial relations at EU level (Leonard et al., 2007); arguably because self-regulating market forces would automatically lead to the desired downward adjustment in wages and workers’ rights across Europe. In November 2011, however, the European Parliament and the Council adopted the so-called Six-Pack of six EU laws on European economic governance. This new European governance regime empowers the European Commission to give detailed policy prescriptions to national governments and to sanction member states. In this post, Roland Erne introduces his recorded lecture explaining why the European labor movement largely failed to politicize the EU’s new regime of economic governance.

This question is important, and not only for those interested in the future of social justice and democracy in Europe. Organized labor’s weak response to the centralization of socioeconomic governance also puts earlier explanations for the occurrence of transnational trade union action to a critical test. In his book European Unions. Labour’s Quest for a Transnational Democracy (2008), Erne argued that transnational union action is not triggered by the making of transnational markets per se, but by the increasing supranational reorganization of firm and state structures. But if it is easier to politicize decisions of the European Commission than abstract market forces behind economic Europeanization and globalization processes (Erne, 2008, 189), why has it been so difficult for organized labor to politicize the new EU governance regime in the transnational public sphere?

Erne’s talk is divided into two parts. First, he outlines the nature and scope of the EU’s new economic governance regime and discusses whether it provides crystallization points for contentious transnational action. Subsequently, he assesses European trade unions’ activities at different stages of the European economic governance regime-making process, namely, 1) the agenda setting stage, 2) the policy adaptation stage, and 3) the policy implementation stage. This approach enables us to assess the role of diverse explanatory factors for the weak politicization of the new European governance regime.

Erne shows that EU’s new governance regime does not follow the classical model of a federal state, but rather the governance structures of multinational corporations, which control their notionally autonomous local subsidiaries using whipsawing tactics and coercive comparisons based on supranational key performance indicators. Then he concludes that organized labour’ difficulties in effectively politicizing European economic governance are best explained by the ability of the new supranational EU regime to nationalize social conflicts.

Erne’s lecture is based on a study of published and unpublished documents by national and European trade union organizations between 2008 and 2014. His study has also benefited from conversations with officials from French, German, Italian, Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, Swiss, and Romanian unions; from EU-level employer associations and trade unions, and from the European Commission. The study on which Erne’s podcast is based has been published in a special issue of Labor History entitled ”Politicizing the Transnational”, which was part of his contribution to the Transnational Labour Project in Oslo, 2013/14:

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