European Unions: A Book Review

European Unions: Labor’s Quest for a Transnational Democracy by Roland Erne (Cornell University Press, 2008)

While focusing on struggles for democracy being waged within unions in the USA and China, we should not neglect Europe. European unions face the different but equally crucial task of building a Europe-wide labor movement capable of representing workers when technocrats and corporations are shaping a neo-liberal Europe.

Robert Taylor’s article on the future of European Social Democracy analyzes the political dimension of the challenge that European integration poses to democratic social movements. The EU faces a “democratic deficit” that is eroding support for “pro-Europe” social democratic parties, while both “left” and “right-wing populist” movements are profiting. Even the relatively strong unions of Northern and Western Europe are losing their ability to enforce social pacts. Taylor cites the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in Brussels as the most cogent and influential organization battling for social democracy at the European level. However Taylor points out that the ETUC’s useful lobbying presence within the labyrinthine EU decision-making process, even in alliance with the inchoate Socialist group in the European parliament, cannot match the influence of the employer group and the EC technocrats.

Erne uses several case studies to show how European unions have used transnational collective action to fight for their members at the EU level. Erne assesses EU-level trade union politics in two core areas: wage coordination policies of the European metal and construction workers’ union federations and job protection during transnational corporate mergers and restructuring in the ABB-Alstom Power and Alcan-Pechiney-Algroup merger cases, Erne’s book is a solid academic effort based on a wide range of research methods, including statistical analysis, participant observation, and interviews with EU-level, national, and local trade unionists and works councilors. He also draws on European, German, French, Italian, and Swiss union documents. The book contains a handy list of abbreviations for those unfamiliar with the alphabet soup of European unions and institutions.

I personally found Erne’s description of the interrelationships among European unions and works councils in the cases he studied unusually realistic and accurate. I served for nearly a decade as the IUF’s coordinator for the European Works Council at Nestlé. Trying to create a working and effective network of local Nestlé worker representatives from some twenty European countries felt like a microcosm of building a European citizenry. It was both frustrating and rewarding work, and made me appreciate the challenges European unions face in creating a genuine workers’ movement at the EU level.

The non-specialist will be interested in Erne’s general argument: that mobilization of European union membership for collective political action is more effective and better for the future of democracy than over-reliance on technical and legal manuevers in Brussels. Only when grassroots union members perceive the European level as a decisive arena in which to wage their fight for social justice and equality will unions successfully democratize Europe. This book is relevant to all readers interested in the future of labor, social justice, and democracy in an increasingly integrated world.


2 Responses

  1. […] effort for the more specialized reader. I have already reviewed Roland Erne’s useful book on European Unionism (Cornell Univ. Press). A collection edited by A. Bieler, I. Lindberg and D. Pillay, entitled LABOUR […]

  2. Fortunately, the EU Parliament will shortly be strengthened. On the other hand, I think the appt of EU officials by state leaders does not contradict democratic principles because those leaders have been elected and repuplican democratic principles don’t function as well directly at a very large scale. If you are interested, here is a related post:

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