Organizing meets Social Partnership
Eddy Stam and Ron Meyer are experienced unionists from the Netherlands (1). One is a seasoned veteran, now working at international level, the other a determined young organizer working with the rank and file. They're good friends, and they’re pretty much agreed: the European model of social partnership unionism has a lot to learn from the organizing model of the Americas (2).
Interview, March 2009
New Unionism Network: Union membership numbers have been relatively stable in Europe since 2000, but ‘union density' has tended to decline. Why do you think this is?
Ron Meyer: Employment in the Netherlands (western Europe) has been growing faster than union membership. The average age of members is also increasing. At the moment union density in our biggest union is about 11%, but this includes about 100,000 retirees, industrial disabled and unemployed workers. Real density, on the workfloor, is down to 9%. We’re not far from the waterfall which could suck us to the bottom.
Eddy Stam: Density has also declined as we lost jobs in our traditional heartlands: heavy industry, transport, ports and the public sector. Growth has emerged in the service sector, and in temporary employment services, but we haven’t kept up with this change. On top of this there has been a shift from large sites to small business, and lots of relocation to Eastern Europe.
New Unionism Network: You’re both passionate advocates of "the organizing model". Can you tell us what this means, in a European context?
Eddy Stam: The organizing model is a bit like becoming a member of a gym: you pay for the facilities, but you have to do the work-outs yourself if you want to get into shape. The union’s job is to enable members to improve their own lives.
Ron Meyer: One of the main problems we have is that almost all unions in western Europe are ‘servicing’ unions. That is, they seek to attract members through a range of services they provide. They don’t actively engage workers in the process of unionism, as the organizing model does. Members come to see unionism as something like an insurance policy. The moment they don’t get what they want, they consider leaving. They’re just not connected to the union.
Eddy Stam: Unions need to be strong and growing so they can empower their membership. This means organizing around a plan which goes beyond the day-to-day work with members. Workplace troubles consume a large part of the union’s resources (meetings, actions, social plans) but they rarely contribute to sustainable growth. In general, fifty percent of a union’s budget is spent on staff who are there to deliver on the servicing model. It takes a lot of work to transform capacities and competences so that these staff can engage in organizing. It is a different job, and it is not one that everybody can or wants to do.
Ron Meyer: The organizing model demands that unions make a fundamental choice (totally, always and everywhere): to become organizations controlled by the majority of members. This means involving workers, and it also means relying on members to develop influence. The focus is on one primary goal: becoming stronger. That means always working to increase membership and density. But above all else, it means putting our faith in workers’ leadership and membership activism. It means developing an independent union view on the role of workers and employers in society. I’m not just talking about politics in the sense of political parties; I mean analysing the mechanisms by which employers maintain power, as well as those that can give workers power. This discussion needs to happen at both 'micro' and 'macro' level. It is this kind of real engagement which prevents members from flying out as fast as they fly in. They become members of the union, not just consumers of union services.
Eddy Stam: This an issue in many unions in Europe nowadays. How much do we spend on organizing and how much do we spend on servicing? There are unions like SIPTU in Ireland, which is planning to scale up the organizing budget in steps until it reaches about 50% (although they still have some bridges to cross). And I know our colleagues in the organizing department at Solidarnosc in Poland are very succesful, although they only have a fraction of the budget they need. Other unions are less committed to making this change. For instance in the Netherlands, the biggest union, FNV Bondgenoten, recently cut a business plan for an organizing department to about a tenth of the proposed budget (ie about half of one percent of the annual budget).
New Unionism Network: Europe is renowned for its ‘social partnership’ approach. Do you see a shift towards organizing as changing this in any way?
Eddy Stam: Social partnership, in my experience, involves working within a space which the employer provides. If members want to move beyond this, they soon feel the constraints of low membership density. Social partnership operates through a set of institutional mechanisms which often alienate working people. Some see the works councils in many European countries as the ultimate in democracy, but in reality only a few of these councils are genuinely democratic. For instance, in the Dutch works councils, legislation provides (depending on the subject) for unions to have either the right of advice or the right of consent on proposed measures. Both of these mechanisms are purely reactive. Admittedly there is also a right to initiate, but it does not bind the employer in anyway, and is very seldom used. The net result is that works council agendas tend to be driven by employers. The communication between employers and the council is presented in long, formal language, and dealing with this takes up most of the meeting. Real workers’ issues are generally left until the end of meetings, where they are very often treated like individual grievances. This means that workers are effectively alienated from decision-making. Union democracy is much more direct. Most unions seek a majority view before and after negotiations. In the organising model we try to break all institutional votes down to workplace committee meetings, with real discussions and voting. We also sure the members understand the underlying realities: no pain, no gain; no fight, no win. The result is an informed decision by the members, not a pre-orchestrated resolution by the union as an institution.
New Unionism Network: How do you see this fitting in with the emerging workplace democracy agenda of New Unionism?
Ron Meyer: We can’t have democratic workplaces when less than 10% of workers are union members! Unions need represent a majority, instead of the small group which understands the institutional ways of the Rheinland model. To achieve this, we need ‘organizing democracy’: real discussions, real leadership development, and real involvement from a majority of workers.
Eddy Stam: I agree. This is the point of organizing. Because the current structures are so bureaucratic and removed from reality in the workplace, workers are alienated from decision-making. I believe we need to counter hierarchical power through an organized workforce. This is exactly what we are trying to achieve through the organizing model. In this sense, social partnership has a long way to go before it starts making work genuinely democratic!
(1) Ron Meyer is a young political activist and is employed by FNV Bondgenoten; Eddy Stam is a union veteran currently working for the European Metalworkers' Federation. All comments are made in a personal capacity. This interview has been compiled from email discussions between Ron, Eddy and Peter Hall-Jones (for the New Unionism Network). Both Eddy and Peter are members of the network.
(2) Readers wanting to know more about European unionism and/or international trends in organizing would be well advised to keep an eye on the Union Renewal blog, maintained by Dirk Kloosterboer and Tonny Groen (of the Netherlands Union Confederation FNV). The New Unionism Network's online library also has a section on organizing here»