In the West, however you want to define it, we live in market economies where the majority of economic transactions are conducted between private actors. The involvement of the state in the market varies from country to country, from the social market economies of Northern Europe to the more laissez-faire economies of elsewhere in Europe and the US.
Historically, trade unions have played an important role in the market economy, organising workers into collectives to strengthen bargaining power with their employers. Such collectivism delivered substantial gains over the years.
For the most part, unions were historically based in what can best be described as “mass male industries”, mines, transport, docks, manufacturing. Such industries were contained within national borders, giving unions significant economic leverage. Outcomes were decided by the balance of forces. The strength and determination of the parties to see things through to the end is what counted.
Nowadays union strength in primarily to be found in the public sector and in some countries the number of women in membership is greater than that of men. Further, the creation of the European single market, and globalisation more generally, has undercut union bargaining power through the gradual decline of the “mass male industries” as jobs were moved to more cost-effective locations. Technology has further contributed as ever more sophisticated systems replace human labour.
All of which is a long introduction to a recent piece by Walton Pantland, (photo) an official with Industrial Global, in which he argues for the establishment of an international labour court. Pantland wants to see the creation of such a court so that unions can “hold multinationals to account.”
Such calls are an indication of union weakness rather than union strength. When unions had economic leverage, they could hold employers “to account” on the picket line. Now that that strength has faded, they need to find new sources of leverage and courts seem the new institutions of choice. We see it in calls for courts to be given the power to issues injunctions to block management decisions where EWCs feel they have not been “properly” informed and consulted.
Courts, of course, adjudicate commercial decisions every day of the week. But their decisions are based on findings of breaches of contract, that one side or the other has failed to do what it committed to do. The problem for the unions, and for EWCs, is that substantive contracts between unions and employers at either European or global level that can be enforced through the courts simply do not exist.
At the global level there are few hundred International Framework Agreements that even Pantland admits cannot be enforced. EWC agreement are little more than procedural agreement in which the parties agree to follow certain steps but there are no binding outcomes or “deliverables” to which they are committed. Which is the unions’ real source of frustration with EWCs that the EWCs “opinion” is not binding on management in any real sense.
Pantland’s article is well worth reading as it clearly maps out the unions’ desired direction of travel. It is likely to be a very long journey with the wished for destination never reached.