Resisting trade deals in Brussels

As the most recent round of negotiations took place last week in Brussels between the EU and US on the TTIP deal, a campaign meeting and demonstration was organised by civil society groups from around Europe that are opposed to the deal.

As is well-established, the effects of globalisation in its present form—namely neoliberal—have been placing great pressure on organised labour for many years now; an outcome which has been accelerated by the various austerity agendas pursued by governments across Europe in particular. Beyond a few notable exceptions the inability of local and national union organisations to unite campaigns in the interests of working people has been a long-standing lament for employment relations researchers and other actors interested in renewal (or even survival) of the union movement in advanced economies.

More recently the emergence of a body of literature on ‘social movement unionism’ has emphasised the opportunities to existing unions in combining with existing civil society organisations – if only they would take them. It is the Anglophone world of industrial relations where this is most pronounced, in part because of the notable—and, perhaps more significantly, widely publicised—successes of unions in Australia and the US. But also in part, it must be noted, because those are the countries where unions have drifted away from their more broad-agenda social origins towards one which is service-orientated and ends at the main door to the workplace.

We can see in the growth of social movement unionism a logical extension of the organising approach to unionism that has been pursued over the last couple of decades. In a very broad sense, this can be interpreted as an attempt to ‘repoliticise’ unions in the sense of creating more dynamic, lay-led campaigning capabilities, though the question of what ‘an organising approach’ is remains so vague that all unions are able to stake a claim while actually pursuing a myriad of even opposing strategies. In short, nobody is against adopting an organising approach and everybody wants unions to work more closely with other groups a la social movement unionism. 

The British and Irish union Unite introduced their community membership option a few years ago to some success and several unions have been involved in the People’s Assembly in the UK as a broad front of organisations and fellow-travellers opposed to deep cuts in spending on public services. But this has been largely absent beyond national borders. However the rash of trade deals currently being negotiated in an opaque manner potentially provides a vehicle to co-ordinate these campaigning activities. 

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, popularly referred to as TTIP, is the most well-known of these but it is not alone. The CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), for example, is at a more advanced stage and is explicitly the blueprint for TTIP. Negotiated between officials of the European Commission and Canadian government this deals also includes the highly controversial Investor-State Tribunals, which allow multinationals to effectively sue democratically elected governments that enact legislation harmful to the company’s interests – included anticipated future earnings. Hence, the metaphor of the Trojan horse.

TTIP has however begun to attract significantly more attention in recent months with nationally orientated campaign groups emerging across Europe and the US – some associated with unions, others not. At a campaign meeting last week I was surprised at the turnout with groups from across Europe and North America as more than 200 people attended to share campaign updates and tactics.

Crucially, the campaign is made up of many different membership/activist organisations with development organisations such the Global Justice Network taking a leading role, as well as environmental groups and unions. It must be noted however that many unions in Europe support these agreements in the belief that they will ‘create jobs’. The use of the term TAFTA to refer to TTIP in US campaign groups however signals the feelings of many who have had these assurance in the past – specifically the promises of the job-creating powers of the NAFTA—North American Free Trade Agreement—in the early 1990s. (It didn't work out that way.)

In the parlance of the organising agenda: are these campaigns winnable? That depends of course on what a win looks like. Different national campaigns have different red lines and vastly different power dynamics in political decision-making in their respective countries. The unions in the UK for example have been successful in pressuring the Labour party to oppose any provisions for privatising health services – though as in so many policy areas they are at best ambivalent on the agreement as a whole. This is in keeping with many of the traditional social democratic parties in Europe – many of whom are in fact enthusiastic cheerleaders for TTIP.

One way in which a win can be defined—and certainly how I would define it—is whether the campaign itself leads to a stronger or weaker subsequent campaigning capacity. That is to say that the outcome is less important than the process in forming, maintaining and developing campaign groups that span different organisations and ideologies that are united in a specific purpose. Whether or not TTIP is wholly defeated (highly unlikely), or significantly amended in the favour of citizens and civic co-operation versus corporations, or indeed adopted as-is, it will be essential that groups develop experience and expertise to resist the specifics of implementation. And that unions in particular learn how to campaign alongside these other groups productively.

When Wikileaks last year revealed the secret text of another of the current deals on the table being led by the EU and the US, it emerged that the parties referred to themselves as the ‘Really Good Friends’. But it is unions and the other civil society organisations who really need those right now. Last week was a good start.

Posted in: Trade Unions
Actions: Comments (1)


12 May 2015 15:44
I was wondering if you think that "social movement unionism" is a very productive idea; those who want to have unions - probably like them as an organization that shaped itself in response to particular labour relations, while those who prefer social movements -, well, they can just join /organize one. I am wondering what is gained here? I think your argument about many unions turning into service delivering organization at work place is very important here, just as the re-turn of the union towards a broader social agenda, I feel that the alliance between trade unions and various organizations is possible (and in fact, in my view, should be happening) even without re-naming of the former. In any case, as you have noted, it is a very inspiring example of involvement in larger social issues on the part of the unions but also, an attempt of various activist organizations to work out a line of common actions.

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