The mission of the trade union movement

First insertion on Heterodox Gazette Sam de Wolff: 4 january 2015

E.A. Bakkum is a blogger for the Sociaal Consultatiekantoor. He loves to reflect on the labour movement.

Since more than a century the trade union movement is an institutional factor in the functioning of the labour market. She is a cartel of workers. The present column analyzes the capability of the movement to influence the labour market. First, the expectations of the founders of the trade union movement are discussed (here personified in Jan Oudegeest). Next the true social position of the movement is studied, first after half a century (in the late sixties), and subsequently after another half of a century (at present). Finally a subjective perspective of the trade union movement is sketched briefly.

One may wonder why a portal, that is dedicated to the political economy, should pay attention to the trade union movement. Is the trade union movement able to affect the economic development? This question will be answered in the remainder of the column. Setting the tone, here a citation of the well-known Dutch economist Jan Pen is given (abbreviated): "Among economists [frequently] the opinion is voiced, that the influence of the trade unions on the wages is nil. They believe, that the scarcity on the labour market is decisive for the setting of wages, and that the trade unions can hardly move them. I do not agree, but it would not be right to ignore the results of the staticians"1.

Pen continues: "I believe that the workers in the fast-growing, profitable industrie hardly need the trade union, except as an administrative body (somebody must conclude the collective agreements). Here, the trade union is commonly more a traffic controller than a battle-organization. The situation is entirely different in slow-growing or decaying branches. Here the trade union has the function of adapting the wage to the average. Without organization there would be laggards. The influence on the wage policy naturally also affects the wage level, because the laggards are raised to the wage of the leaders. Thus a strong wage rise results. But this also creates a conflict with the consumers".

Those who attempt to understand the mission of the trade union movement, soon find themselves in a mine-field. Namely, the available literature usually gives a distorted picture, because she originates from the trade union movement itself, or worse still, from radical leftwing propagandists, who use the trade unions as an instrument for the preaching of their own political dogma's2. Your columnist is fortunate enough to dispose of experience in the voluntary activities within the trade unions and within politics. The activities within the trade union were executive functions for a period of several years. That is sufficient to somewhat modify the extolling views in the many memorial books. At the time the experience with the reforms in the trade union organization already resulted in several columns, on the website of the Sociaal Consultatiekantoor3.

Nevertheless, there are also credible publications, notably originating from science, such as the cited argument of Pen. The views in this column are mainly taken from such objective sources. They will be contrasted now and then with ideas from the radical literature. First, the mission of the trade union movement at the start of the twentieth century will be sketched, at the moment when it professionalized. This part is based on the books of the union leader Jan Oudegeest, whose views were at the time of an excellent quality. Next a description is given of the views about the mission of the trade unions, that circulated during the late sixties. Then the debate is already dominated by academics. And finally several books from the present century are consulted, that express mainly the radical views.

The rise of the professional trade union movement

In the Netherlands the trade union movement has emerged mainly from the social-democracy, the catholicism and the protestantism. The founding years of the NVV, the RKWV (later KAB, still later NKV) and the CNV are respectively 1906, 1925 and 1909. The NVV (Dutch association of trade unions, Nederlands Verbond van Vakverenigingen) is not just the oldest one, but it has also always been the largest of the three federations. Therefore this column obviously analyzes its mission as the textbook case. The most complete historiography of the early NVV is written by Jan Oudegeest, who in 1909-1918 was the chairman of the association4. He has documented his views on the mission of the trade union movement in the two volumes De geschiedenis der zelfstandige vakbeweging in Nederland5. The first volume is mainly historical, whereas the second volume analyzes the various themes concerning labour.

The reader may observe that the contents of this column deviates somewhat from all previous ones. For, understanding the economic meaning of the trade unions requires an analysis of their organizational structure and their morals. In a previous column it has already been explained, that the social relations of power always exert an influence on the economic processes. The discourse of Jan Oudegeest is indeed mainly devoted to the organizational processes and administrative interactions. Oudegeest presents surprisingly wise and modern insights (more than those of many present union activists), although he had to invent almost everything on his own. His views about the trade union movement will be clarified by means of citations (often somewhat curtailed and reduced to their essence).

First, the reason of existence of the trade unions must obviously be formulated. On II:p.4 Oudegeest writes: "Those, who subscribe as members, do not do this because they consciously want to engage in the battle of the working class, but in most cases, because they want to further their interests, that is to say, that they want to obtain larger advantages in the form of a better living conditions, in return for the subscription, that they pay". And later on he states (II:p.14): "In general it can be said, that the trade unions must grow due to their successes. The trade union must devote herself to the earning of money for her members". The primary interest is material, namely obtaining a higher wage.

Yet Oudegeest believes that the goals of the trade union deserve a wider perspective (II:p.112): "The reduction of the working hours remains the basis for all attempts of material, spiritual and moral gains of the masses. [She furthers] the need, to enjoy the leisure time as much as possible, and thus in general creates new needs in the material and spiritual domains, which again and again stimulate the production in most industries". That is not surprising in an era, when working days of 10 or 12 hours are still normal. Incidentally, the yearly labour-time has been reduced further after the Second Worldwar, among others due to the introduction of holidays.

Photo of Jan Oudegeest
Figure 1: Jan Oudegeest

The trade union movement is formed because of the experience, that the entrepreneur will not voluntarily satisfy the needs of the workers. There is a conflict of interests, which must be solved in a battle. The ultimate weapon of the workers is the refusal to work, that is to say, the strike. However, the strike also robs the workers of their incomes. Thanks to the trade unions, they can save a fund, that allows them to survive the strike. On I:p.216 Oudegeest states: "Strength can merely be obtained, in addition to practical measures for propaganda, by successes, scored against the entrepreneurs or against the government, when it concerns social laws. Thus the fact, that a trade union disposes of a solid fund for strikes, is also attractive for the unorganized worker". And on II:p.14: "Therefore the formation of the fund, which showed to the house-wives, that her interests were also looked after, and that the trade union was more than a means for striking, was not neglected".

Thus the trade unions dispose of a rational reason of existence. Mouth-to-mouth publicity helps to rapidly expand the organization (II:p.21): "The actual propaganda for the trade unions is made in the factories and workshops. When the people there are convinced of the success, the wealth or the institutes of the trade unions, then that is the best propaganda, that can be made". On II:p.26 Oudegeest continues: "Some results can be achieved with extraordinary means [of propaganda], but the natural growth of the trade unions must come from the scored successes. As soon as the conjuncture begins to worsen and unemployment rises, then the enthusiasm of the workers for the organization wanes". This illustrates that the trade unions and the economy mutually affect each other6.

So the trade unions supply the means to make the strike possible. But at the time Oudegeest already begins to realize, that the strike is actually an unsuited weapon. On II:p.278 he ponders: "The [strike] requires excellent leadership qualities for those, that lead it, also because after several days being out on strike the mentality of the strikers temporarily changes completely [that is to say, a decreasing enthusiasm EB]. According as the position of the worker is more solid and his existence becomes more regular, also for instance thanks to the collective agreements, insurances etcetera, the use of the strike as a weapon also becomes more difficult. Besides, the worker dislikes strikes. Going on strike always means, that it is war, with losses on both sides". Here Oudegeest does not even mention the discomfort of the consumers. He does warn, that the public opinion can turn against the strikers.

This insight must still become common knowledge within society. Therefore Oudegeest remarks (I:p.234): "According as a trade union is stronger and she has expanded her institutes, the number of strikes will diminish, but their size will increase. These factors stimulate the willingness to negotiate, both of the entrepreneurs and the workers. The diplomacy of the trade unions is a profession in itself. However, in order to step up a young movement to the strength, that is needed in order to convince the entrepreneurs, that they benefit more by negotiating, with possible compromises, than by engaging in a strike, the union needs pedagogical means, which concern mainly the administration and propaganda".

The process of learning and formation are quite painful for all. Oudegeest describes a number of large strikes during the first quarter of the twentieth century7. Most of them are lost. Oudegeest notably complains, that the christian federations RKWV and CNV had insufficient funds for going on strike, so that they had to end the strike prematurely. This would also force the NVV to end the strike. Your columnist is not convinced by this argument, and can imagine, that unrealistic demands were made. It illustrates, that a truly long-lasting strike usually makes no sense, irrespective of the wealth in the reserved fund. Nowadays, long-lasting strikes are extremely rare. Short strikes do occur, as a pin-prick, and in order to mobilize the public opinion.

The blunt weapon of the strikes can be omitted, when the rights of the workers are laid down in collective agreements with the associations of entrepreneurs (II:p.143): "The fact, that the trade union, in its activities, has a strong constructive effect, also with regard to the industrial structure, disqualifies in any case the [implacable class war]. The workers knew intuitively, that the closure of collective agreements could be a powerful means in their struggle. Although they did not lose sight of the fact, that these collective agreements had to be valuable for the industry and its mafucacturers as well". And on II:p.151: "So the collective agreement is in the material sense one of the best instruments of the trade union, to improve the labour conditions and to strengthen the organization, - for the workers themselves it adds a lot to the feeling of self-respect and thus to the moral emancipation".

Photo of CNV jubilee medal
Figure 2: CNV medal 60 years membership

It is naturally still more convenient to fix the rights of the workers in national legislation. The trade unions appreciate this (II:p.77): "In this respect, the christian trade union movement defended the same standpoint as the NVV, namely that the legislation must be used for the improvement of the living conditions of the working class. The cours of history has shown, that also in this domain, as well as in the domain of the wage struggle, the basis of Marxism incited more energy, more courage, better results and finally also more power by a larger membership and more sacrifice by the members, than the basis of the christian labour union movement". This last remark probably refers to to heigher subscription. Even when henceforth the reasonable deliberation is preferred, nevertheless the tone of voice can vary.

However, the trade union movement can only further new legislation, when it consults the government and the political parties. Thus it de facto accepts the right of existence of the ruling social order. This is traditionally a problem for the trade unions, because they have always hoped for radical structural reforms. Even the christian federations have regularly dreamt about workers' management. Despite his marxist sympathies Oudegeest himself is a realist (II:p.97): "The international trade union movement has completely eliminated [the theory of the 'proletarian dictature'] in its social-political program of Bern in 1917, by making demands, that pointed to a gradual development of social politics. [This is done] by means of the universal suffrage, social legislation, autonomy for the municipalities, participation of the state or community in private enterprises etcetera".

An intimate relation with the ruling order could undermine the fervour of the trade unions. Oudegeest actually wants to remain at a distance of politics (II:p.58): "With the foundation of the NVV all political parties were kept out, in order to prevent that the meetings of the unions remained deliberations about questions of a political nature. It was empathically determined, that the NVV would not engage in political problems and would stimulate merely the social legislation". Most union members are hardly interested in politics (II:p.85): "Because, I believe that those strikers, that are still unconscious, that are organized in the union for their interests and not for the ideal of the struggle of the working class, are during strikes only interested in the strike and in nothing else. They remain impassive for anything, that goes beyond it".

And even the lack of consciousness has its gradations. Some groups can actually not be controlled (II;p.41): "The [uneducated or] casual labourer maintains the hallmarks of the man, who misses the disposition for regular work. These qualities make him very unsuited for the regular membership of a trade union, especially now the trade unions have accepted responsibilities". It will be clear by now, that Oudegeest rejects the general strike as an instrument for realizing political goals. Incidentally, the NVV often even disagrees with the congenial SDAP (Social-democratic Workers Party) about the daily tactics. On the other hand, he still confirms here, that the trade union movement is becoming a social institution.

Although apparently the trade unions must not seek political ties, they do need to contribute to the social order (II:p.231): "The trade union movement must search one of the most important means to strenghten the organizations in the improvement of administration, in methodical organization and in a continuously growing unification of the methods of conflict, also by regular cooperation with allied groups". The institutional task also becomes apparent in the following citation (II:p.185): "In the end the NVV has transformed the slogan and the effort for extended labour into welfare politics. It stresses more the duties of the government, than the term extended labour, [because] welfare politics can be executed only under the control of the government".

This is no small matter. Incidentally, it must be realized, that at the moment of writing (1932) the Great Depression is active for already three years. And three years later the NVV and SDAP will propose the Plan van de Arbeid. This explains the rest of the citation: "The first concern of a well ordered state is yet, to search for food for the participants in that state, that is to say, its inhabitants. This is only possible by the creation of work, the disclosure and the continuous flow of the natural and artificial resources of existence for the people". This latter part refers to reclamation, mining, and the realization of infrastructure such as canals. Here a political and ideological standpoint is evidently propagated, which will certainly not be supported by all workers. The christian federations are clearly more reserved in this respect, because they reject too much influence by the state.

In some cases the trade union movement and the state must agree on a division of tasks. This is notably the case for the various arrangements for income, such as the pension for old age and the insurance against unemployment and disability. It may surprise some people, that more need is felt for existential security than for abstract human rights. Thus Oudegeest states (II:p.135): "The SDAP based her propaganda mainly on two points: the movement for the universal suffrage, and for the free old-age benefit. The latter demand was initially more popular than the demand for a universal suffrage. This is commonly the case with slogans, that aim at a direct material advantage". Finally the Dutch trade union movement has appropriated merely the management of the retirement funds. For instance its Belgian sister also manages the unemployment benefits.

This illustrates that the trade unions change into a body of the existing order. The other side of the picture is that the members are consulted less often. Oudegeest rejects the direct democracy, and wants to centralize the decisions (I:p.281): "A referendum is itself already the most backward instrument for a decision about important matters, and such a referendum can certainly not replace a general assembly and I believe that it is unacceptable to bind an assembly by a referendum result of 25% of all members in the organization". And again on I:p.253: "A few thousand men, who will generally rarely visit meetings, could steer the union at will, without the necessity to supply solid arguments for their vote". The results of referenda turn out to be arbitrary, and can easily be manipulated.

The mission of the trade unions during the seventies

The preceding paragraph shows that already Oudegeest adapts his ideas about the trade union movement. The unions start as an instrument to allow for strikes. However, according as the destructive character of the strike becomes more apparent, this reason of existence becomes less important. Henceforth the trade union movement hails the collective agreement (CAO), and it specializes in labour laws. It engages in the administration and the formation of officials and executives. At the same time the ruling order begins to appreciate the demands of the labour movement. Therefore it becomes possible to fix the rights of workers in the national laws. Thanks to this development, the collective agreement (collectieve arbeidsovereenkomst, CAO) reduces to a supplement to the basic rights of workers. This illustrates that the trade union movement loses significance due to its own activities. It must continually reinvent itself.

Immediately after the Second Worldwar the trade union movement makes an interesting attempt to integrate in the economic administration. Together with its political congenial spirits, it pleads in favour of an order based on public branch corporations. In that manner the trade union movement becomes an integral part of the daily administrative system on all public levels. This is attractive for the bureaucracy of the unions, but it forces the members to moderate their demands. Besides, the experiment with this order fails. In other European states this attempt is absent, but also there the professional unions are merged into branch unions. The rise of the European Community weakens the trade unions, because these are organized at the national level. Henceforth the Dutch trade unions also focus their attention on participation and co-management, just like their sister organizations elsewhere in Western Europe.

Already in 1950 the Law on the works councils (ondernemingsraden, in short OR) is passed. In 1971 the law is adjusted in such a manner, that the position of the OR is strengthened. Although the trade unions support this change, it actually partly transfers the furthering of interests to the OR. Furthermore, after the Second Worldwar the European welfare increases significantly, so that the wage level can rise, which has the consequence that the conflict of redistribution is softened. That also reduces the importance of the trade unions. In addition, the state makes a top priority of full employment, even without any pressure from the unions. Again the trade union movement experiences an existential crisis. Whereas in the interbellum the number of members grows appreciably for all federations, after the Second Worldwar the Dutch degree (density) of organization remains constant at less than 40% 8.


Since the interbellum the social sciences have developed significantly. Therefore in 1970 the trade union movement is already the subject of many sociological studies, that analyze its changing function from various different perspectives. The scientific character of the social debate forces the trade unions to hire more and more well educated workers as personnel. At the time the so-called New Left movement is held in high esteem, especially among the young academics. The hallmark of the New Left is the ambition to establish an anti-authoritarian democracy9. This idea becomes popular also within the trade union movement. In the present paragraph several of these scientific studies will be, rather arbitrarily, selected for a closer inspection10. It will turn out, that the anti-authoritarian democracy is an unsound form of communication. It is not accidental, that Oudegeest advocates the representative democracy.

The dilemma is explained well by the sociologist H.J. van Zuthem. The trade union movement must perform two tasks: the correction function and the emancipation function. In principle both tasks are conflicting. For, in the correction function the trade unions try to reform society in the desired direction. They distance themselves from the ruling order, and are the mouthpiece of their members. On the other hand, the emancipation function requires, that the workers begin to participate in the existing order. During the process the trade unions integrate naturally into the existing order. They make compromises, and are actually the mediator between the members and the ruling order. Since the workers and the entrepreneurs partly share the same interests, the members are willing to moderate their demands.

Photo of KAB ashtray
Figure 3: KAB ashtray

Since the trade unions become established institutions within the existing order, they must formulate their own political policies. Consider their roles in the Social-Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, SER) and in the Foundation of Labour (Stichting van de Arbeid, StAr). The process of emancipation is accompanied by tensions within the trade union federations and tensions with the existing order. The control function sometimes conflicts with the emancipation in the OR and in the supervisory boards of the enterprises. In fact this is workers' co-management exclusive of the trade unions. The policy of the unions becomes dualistic. Van Zuthem advises the unions to transfer the emancipation function to the self-management of workers. He states that the emancipation is more and more a task of the regular education. This makes the traditional formation by the trade unions less important.

The German sociologist E. Mayer reaches the same conclusions as Van Zuthem, but adds in her analysis several aspects, that are missing in the argument of Van Zuthem. She also concludes, that the trade unions have become a stabilizing institution within the existing social system. They perform public functions. Their traditional support in strikes, such as originally advocated by Jan Oudegeest, has largely disappeared. Now Mayer distinguishes between two views of the trade unions: the autonomous unions and the cooperating unions. In the autonomous unions the experts determine the policy, so that the politicization can be omitted. The consultations based on parity are decisive. In this essentially liberal model the existing order is not questioned.

On the other hand, the cooperating trade unions prefer their own political position. Here two situations are conceivable: obligation or voluntariness. An obligatory cooperation implies, that the social development dictates a certain policy. The trade unions may object to this policy, but due to the social necessity it is impossible to engage in an alternative policy ("there is no alternative"). The policy is in fact technical planning, without autonomy. The function of the trade unions is to mediate in conflicts. Voluntary cooperation implies, that the unions try to steer the social development in the desired direction. Within the New Left many thinkers believed, that the trade union movement must still continue the class struggle. There is an irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the factors labour and capital.

Another approach to revive the trade union movement is the opposition by principle. This opposition does not have her origin within the trade union movement itself. Various avant-garde clubs such as Leninists, Trotskists, Maoists and anarchists, become active in the unions, and propagates their ideology through the democratic structures within the unions. Your columnist believes that this is a destructive approach, because thus the democracy turns into a caricature. Nevertheless, at the time this approach was quite popular. The officials within the trade unions evidently benefit from the almost unlimited devotion and self-sacrifice of these misguided people. They create a façade of energetic activism. This opposition is positive towards the general strike with political intentions. The workers' co-management gets a high priority - in spite of the warning by Oudegeest, that the workers prefer material benefits.

It is true that the mentioned analyses are elegant, but they have little practical use. The New Left had a morbid preference for introspection. This is repelling for people, who expect concrete material benefits from the trade unions. Mayer tells that some officials within the trade unions want to prioritize the furthering of individual interests (FII). This fits well with the individualism of the New Left, and with the model of the obligatory cooperation. However, one wonders, whether the trade unions are better at FII than for instance a lawyer specialized in labour laws. All in all, Van Zuthem and Mayer do not really succeed in re-inventing the trade union movement. And that is alarming.

The radicalization in the present millennium

Since the oil crises in the seventies the number of trade unions members continously falls in all states. In the Netherlands the density of organization is already reduced to 26% in 1986. Then she stabilizes somewhat, however since 2000 with a decreasing tendency. At the same time the members age on average, in an extreme manner. Your columnist does not dispose of extensive sociological studies with regard to this phenomenon, and it seems as though the sociologists are less interested in the trade unions. Therefore the analysis of this period can merely consult several radical leftwing publications11. It can naturally be questioned whether these are representative for the true development. But as far as your columnist can check, in the past decades the Dutch trade union movement has indeed become more radical. Thus the radical sources are still relevant for the ideas in the trade unions as a whole, and definitely within the tiny group of active cadre.

The most recent among the consulted radical sources (see footnote) is the publication by the German sociologist F. Deppe (namely, in 2012). Although the analysis of all these sources is rather of the same tenor, Deppe yet voices the most radical standpoint. In the ideological sense he is close to the Leninists. He even calls the trade unions class organizations, as though the epoch of Oudegeest still continues. Deppe indeed states that the unions in essence remain an instrument for strikes. He even advises to start the general political strike, if necessary, in line with the opposition by principle movement, but opposed to Oudegeest, in his epoch. Deppe naturally also concludes, that since the seventies the position of the trade unions has weakened. In Germany the density of organization has halved, to 20% now. The reasons are partly economical (globalization etcetera) and partly social. They can be found in the previous column about the evolutionary decline of socialism.

Notably the big industries change their character. The big industries increase the use of ancillary suppliers, which must be highly competitive. Henceforth the big industries are the coordinators of their networks. Outside the immediate core of the big industries the employment is uncertain. Thus there are groups of workers with very different engagements among the union members. The spread in the wages increases, upwards as well as downwards. Deppe believes that the interests of the core personnel and the workers in marginal positions are almost irreconcilable. Thus in Germany pressure is exerted on the Rhineland model, which for the trade unions implies the collective agreements (CAO, Tarifvertrag), the redistribution of income, and the co-management in the enterprises. The entrepreneurs lament increasingly, that the collective agreements are too rigid, too uniform, and too detailed. It is logical, that the associations of entrepreneurs also lose members.

Photo of NVV jubilee medal
Figure 4: NVV medal 50 years membership

The collective agreements are actually undermined, because perforce so-called opener-clauses must be included. For, the enterprises suffer more and more from the global competition. When it is required by the position of the enterprise, the collective agreement can now be undercut. In the union circles this concession hurts12. At the time, Oudegeest stressed that the trade unions will wither when their successes stay away. Then they get the image of losers and grumblers (justified or not). Deppe, with his opposition by principle view, regrets the compliance of the trade unions. He complains that the trade unions acknowledge the necessity of capitalism. He advocates a more political profile, but does not explain why this would benefit the members. In that way his advice looks ideologically biased and dogmatic13.

In this paragraph a new form of trade union activism must be mentioned, namely organizing14. She originates from the United States of America, where the propagandists of the trade unions tried to mobilize workers in marginal engagements into action. There the approach was fairly successful. However, in Europe even the "marginal" jobs are still livable. Therefore, here the trade unions must spend large sums of money in order to achieve some success with organizing projects. And the danger is rather large, that the public opinion resents this type of labour conflicts, directed from without. On the other hand, in successful cases the image will be somewhat reinforced.

However, the radical authors want to combat the decline of the trade union movement mainly be intensifying the actions at the European level. The possibility to establish a European workers' council in transnational enterprises is hailed as a victory. Unfortunately, especially the collective agreement hardly allows for an international coordination among unions, because the national systems of social security are mutually too different. Thus the capital market does become international, whereas the labour market remains national. The radical authors are hostile towards this development within the European Union (EU). They defend a conservative view, and demand more sovereignty for the European member states15. In this view the trade unions at the European level become mainly a movement, that executes actions in favour of a return to the political situation during the seventies.

In the same tenor the radical authors favour a Keynesian policy, and oppose austerity of the state. It is conveniently ignored, that such a policy will fail, when the entrepreneurs do not support her16. Incidentally, this is also a political competency, which does not require the intervention of the unions. All in all the radical authors plead both at the national and international level for a trade union mission, that is no longer credible and therefore not viable either. The trade union movement can learn little from the radical views.

Finally in this paragraph it must be stressed, that other views also circulate within the trade union movement. None of the Dutch federations principally rejects the integration towards a more coherent European Union. And even within the unions many see advantages in the differentiation of the collective agreements. For, the group of workers as a whole becomes more and more diverse (pluriform). The trade unions could become service industries and advisors17. Then the control function becomes subordinate. The question naturally remains whether the trade union movement in such a form is sufficiently attractive for continuing its existence as a mass organization. This approach will probably not be able to end the loss of members.


An evaluation of the trade union movement will unavoidably offend many groups. Therefore it must be stressed first and foremost, that the present paragraph is a subjective attempt at finding the truth. Your columnist believes, that if the trade unions would be founded now, then they would not assume their present form. The trade union movement is undermined by its own success. Nowadays there is simply less need for it. That becomes apparent from the two mentioned functions of the unions, namely emancipation and control. At present the emancipation function is performed better by the education and by the works councils. In addition, people have an intuitive aversion of the cartel form, which the unions by definition assume. Originally the trade union movement is a necessary evil. The control function is largely taken over by the social and labour laws.

Incidentally, the early labour movement was aware of the temporary character of the trade unions. Jan van den Tempel, the secretary of the NVV board under Oudegeest, argues that in socialism the trade unions would defend the general interest, and should moderate the demands of the workers18. But then they naturally stop being trade unions. Nevertheless, also at present there remains a need for trade unions. These will then propagate the specific interests, and thus be categoral. The previous arguments indicate that they will be unwilling to form federations. Many of the collective arrangements are already supplied extremely well by private organizations, such as insurances and pension funds. The present federations can continue their activities in advising and in macro-economic deliberations about the general interest, also at the global level. They will probably shrink appreciably, and lose the character of mass organizations. They become NGO's.

And finally: the analysis mainly targets the trade union movement in the developed western states. It is obvious, that these tendencies are also valid for the unions elsewhere. Nevertheless the situation in China, India, etcetera naturally requires a proper analysis, which may will lead to other nuances.

  1. See p.82 and further in Harmonie en conflict (1968, De bezige Bij) by J. Pen. (back)
  2. During the past ten years your columnist has spent relatively much time in observing the various radical-left groups. Think about Leninist lectures in Berlin, Maoist summer schools (really!) and anarchist book fairs. It all looks socially unhealthy, and they did not please. Your columnist was never stimulated to join them. The experience with the anarchists is yet rather positive. These are people with strong principles, who want to determine their own lives with a minimal interference of the state. The incidental bomb thrower is clearly lost here. However, the experience with the Leninists and Maoists is plainly negative. It is true that they are well organized, but here the binding element is an unrealistic feeling of superiority with regard to the society. Just like a religious sect, the groups are convinced to be the unique bearers of the truth. The right to possibly seize power, with violence, if necessary, is derived from this conviction. The visitor of such a summerschool must not be surprised, when for instance the interference of the Chinese state on the Tiananmen Square in 1989 is applauded. It is a dreadful vision, that once the Leninists or Maoists could seize power here. In the past these two groups were plainly hostile towards the anarchists. Remember the continuing quarrels in the then trade union federation NAS (Nederlands Arbeids Secretariaat, discontinued in 1940). However, during the sixties and the seventies of the past century all these groups became friendly in their rebellion against authoritarian rule. It is remarkable, that since then this alliance has been maintained, and ten years ago even succeeded in organizing the Dutch Social Fora. The alliance can sometimes count on the support of the trade unions, NGO's, and the social-democracy. (back)
  3. Although these columns merely give a snapshot of the life in the trade unions, they are true pearls. It has been a privilege to participate in the grassroots situation, that was present in the local branches of Abvakabo FNV, until the reorganizations. (back)
  4. Since 1906 he was already the secretary. Furthermore, Oudegeest was during the period 1919-1925 the secretary of the newly formed International Federation of Trade Unions (Internationaal Verbond van Vakverenigingen, IVV). Besides, since 1918 he was a member of parliament for the SDAP in the Second and First Chamber. He was also the chairman of the SDAP in the period 1927-1934. All these prestigious functions illustrate the authority, which Oudegeest possessed at the national and international level of the labour movement. (back)
  5. See De geschiedenis der zelfstandige vakbeweging in Nederland (N.V. De Arbeiderspers) by Jan Oudegeest. Volume I apprears in 1926, and volume II in 1932. The publication can still be obtained on the second-hand market for a fair price. Oudegeest has developed a clear view on the trade union movement, and is rigorous in this respect. On the one hand, this leads to clarity. On the other hand, sometimes he is wrong, and in such cases his self-confidence is grotesque. Sometimes his choice of language is plainly rude. For instance, he writes about Gerrit van Erkel, the secretary of the NAS in 1895-1906 (I:p.136): "Weakness of spirit, lack of moral courage and of perseverance are the main characteristics of his nature, as far as we can deduce from his actions". In fact, Oudegeest wants to express, that he rejects the style of leadership of Van Erkel, where all decisions are consistently made with democratic procedures. Even the friendly texts are sometimes condescending (I:p.135): "Voogsgeerd, then at the age of 12 between the mind-numbing clattering of the weaving-looms, one understands, that for a wider development, for a wider spreading of the wings the opportunity was absent. For this purpose, one must move in other circles than he". It is human to be class-conscious, but this is better left unsaid. (back)
  6. The social-democratic economist Sam de Wolff also expresses this opinion. Incidentally, De Wolff concludes also, that in the economic prosperity the number of marriages increases, and subsequently also the number of births. (back)
  7. A typical example is the strike in the textile industry in Almelo of 1914. It lasts for six months. See p.344 in De geschiedenis der zelfstandige vakbeweging in Nederland volume II. (back)
  8. See p.586 in De beheerste vakbeweging (1976, Uitgeverij Van Gennep bv) by K. van Doorn, G. Dubbeld, P. Rosielle, and F. van Waarden. (back)
  9. The New Left originates from the United States of America, in the wake of the battle for the black civil rights. The philosophy of the New Left is supplied among others by the Critical Theory of the School of Franfurt. Perhaps the most important thinker of the School of Frankfurt is Herbert Marcuse, who writes authoritative books such as Onedimensional man en Eros and civilisation. The Critical Theory advocates rebellion against the ruling order, by means of politization and polarization of the social debate. (back)
  10. To be specific, it concerns Theorien zum Funktionswandel der Gewerkschaften (1973, Europäische Verlagsanstalt) by E. Mayer, as well as the volume Vakbeweging nu en straks (1967, N.V. De Arbeiderspers), notably the contributions of T. Koopmans and H.J. van Zuthem. (back)
  11. It concerns Gewerkschaften vor der europäischen Herausforderung (1993, Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot) by E. Altvater and B. Mahnkopf, Tarifpolitik der Zukunft (1995, VSA-Verlag), edited by R. Bispinck, Solidariteit in beweging (2009, Academic and Scientific Publishers bv), edited by C. Devos, K. Vandaele, J. Faniel and C. Gobin, and Gewerkschaften in der Großen Transformation (2012, PapyRossa Verlag) by F. Deppe. Although Deppe is a professor, he personally attacks trade union leaders in various places of his book, when he believes that their views are too "rightwing". For instance, on p.67 reproaches the union leader Rappe for having a friendly relation with Helmut Kohl! This type of insinuations are of course rather common, but they are particularly abundant in radical-left circles. Altvater and Mahnkopf in their book use similar arguments as Deppe, albeit somewhat less radical. The Belgian book contains no less than 29 contributions, and therefore remains superficial. The authors are radical to various degrees. (back)
  12. It is uncertain that the fear for more flexible collective agreements is justified. For, in many states, also in Europe (France and Great-Britain, see p.111 and further in Tarifpolitik der Zukunft), the trade unions hardly use collective agreements. It is simply necessary to adapt to the changing economic conditions, which less than before require a collective agreement. The conservatism within the unions will be repeatedly discussed in the remainder of this column. (back)
  13. Incidentally, Deppe believes, that since the economic crises during the nineties of the last century capitalism is in trouble. The financial crisis of 2007 would be the ultimate proof of this. Deppe needs this statement in order to defend his orthodox-socialist ideology. In his perspective the global Social Fora at the start of the twenty-first century provide new impulses to the trade union movement (p.79). The matter-of-fact conclusion is, that the impulses have changed little - and certainly not for the union members. (back)
  14. See p.82 in Gewerkschaften in der Großen Transformation, and p.15-17 in Solidariteit in beweging. (back)
  15. Conservatism is by no means alien to the leftwing movement. Thus during the nineteenth century the poet William Morris is active in the English socialist party, although he advocated the return to Medieval attitudes. (back)
  16. The entrepreneurs must have confidence, that the state can accurately predict the future economic developments. For, the Keynesian policy is exactly based on this skill. Only then is the state able to choose the needed volume of investments at the right time. During the fifties and sixties of the last century the central plans of the state were indeed fairly accurate. However, since the seventies the global economy has become so complex, that the central plans become unsound. This obviously also attracts the attention of the entrepreneurs, and they react with distrust to far-reaching central plans. (back)
  17. See p.137-172 in Tarifpolitik der Zukunft. (back)
  18. See p.89 in Problemen der socialisatie (1923, N.V. Boekhandel en uitgevers-maatschappij "Ontwikkeling") by J. van den Tempel. There he writes (abbreviated): "There [in socialism EB] the promotion of the interests of the workers can be completely reconciled with the positive stimulation of the productivity of the enterprise. [However,] especially in the beginning an appeal to the insight and the good will of all personnel, labourers and employees, will not suffice. The institutions themselves must bring about, that a different mentality is created and that dedication and the liberation of energy are stimulated in all parts of the enterprise. The policy of the organizations of workers must empathically also be concentrated on this challenge". In his perspective the emancipation must be an almost unconditional integration. In this model the control function of the trade unions becomes superfluous. (back)