Beyond 'political economism': new identities for unions in Western Europe?

Author:Taylor, Graham

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). This 'European turn' amongst the upper echelons of British unionism has been matched by one of the leading figures in British industrial relations, but in contrast to the 'Europhilia' of union leaders, Richard Hyman has seemingly retained a more balanced perspective on European integration. However, implicit in the work of Hyman on European integration and the strategic choices facing unions in Europe is the suggestion that 'Europe' is the terrain on which unions are able to operate in order to secure a new social settlement for labour. The work of Hyman on union identity and European integration can be traced to the early 1990s. His initial concern was to develop a framework for understanding union identity that was presented as the (often unrecognised) basis for union strategy. The basic components of union identity were presented as 'interest representation', 'democratic structure', 'agenda framing' and 'power mobilization" (Hyman, 1994a, 1994b). The range of union identities in a comparative and historical context included 'craft', 'business', 'confessional', 'syndicalist', 'social democratic' and 'communist'. According to Hyman, the dominant form of union identity in Western Europe during the post-war period was 'political economism'. The crisis of contemporary European unionism needed to be contextualised within a clear understanding of the development and crisis of this dominant union identity.

Hyman traced the historical development of unionism through a triple polarisation of union identity between a revolutionary or anti-capitalist orientation, an orientation focused on social integration or social cohesion and forms of business unionism that involved a narrow orientation around occupational interests (Hyman, 1996a: 65). During the first half of the 20th century, there were bitter and prolonged struggles within and between unions and union confederations on the basis of these rival identities. By the mid-20th century, the conflict over union identity in Western Europe had been transcended, although the transformation was obscured by organisational separation and ideological sloganising (Hyman, 1994a). Unions that had articulated revolutionary or reformist political demands became increasingly focused on a collective bargaining agenda that rendered political orientations increasingly rhetorical. Simultaneously, the terrain of collective bargaining became increasingly politicised as a result of Keynesian macro-economic management and the legislative regulation of employment relations and, in this context, business unionism also became increasing untenable. The dominant union identity became what Hyman (1996a: 66) has termed 'political economism', which combined collective bargaining with employers with a concern to influence the broader political, legal and economic framework of collective bargaining. The consolidation of 'political economism' involved a complex process of institution-building associated with 'political exchange' or 'neo-corporatism'. The resulting institutions articulated a reciprocal relationship between labour, capital and the state and involved the exchange of union restraint for labour-friendly or labour-neutral government policies. These developments displayed marked national specificities (Baglioni, 1987; Therborn, 1992; Crouch, 1993) alongside functional similarities and convergence.

The new environment which has been developing since the 1970s, and which was proving increasingly inhospitable for 'political economism', was presented by Hyman as being the product of four intersecting processes of change (Hyman, 1994a: 109-119). These processes of change had undermined the socioeconomic composition, institutional terrain, ideological legitimacy and socio-cultural relevance of 'political economism' as a union identity. First, the global restructuring of capital associated with globalisation and the increasing prominence of MNCs had contributed to a shift from manufacturing to service employment, and this had stripped the labour movement of its core membership and its heroic central figure in the form of the semi-skilled industrial worker. Hyman rejected the 'death of class' thesis to argue that industrial change had produced a 'crisis of a specific, narrowly based type of unionism' (Hyman, 1994a: 113) alongside the potential to develop more inclusive types of unionism out of the fragmented workforce generated by corporate and industrial change. Second, 'economic stringency' had undermined the institutional basis for 'political economism'. In the Keynesian era, unions were able to operate effectively as intermediaries between the state and the working class through a mechanism of 'political exchange' that delivered material gains to union members and relative industrial quiescence to the state and employers. The end of Keynesianism had placed severe pressures on this exchange as unions came to be recognised by the state according to their capacity to make policies of retrenchment and restraint palatable to their members. The corollary of this was that restraint often resulted in loss of membership and/or leadership challenges owing to rank-and-file disenchantment. Third, the 'erosion of partisan attachments' associated with the demise of communism and confessionalism had resulted in the relative absence of an ideologically based alternative to, and replacement for, 'political economism'. However, Hyman argued that the retreat of old 'ideological obstacles' offered an opportunity to develop new union projects as an alternative to forms of apolitical unionism that capitulated to neoliberal globalisation. Fourth, the 'decline of collectivism' (Hyman, 1994a: 117-119) associated with the shift from industrialism to post-industrialism had resulted in important socio-cultural changes and these had impacted on established forms and expressions of worker...

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