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Les données nouvelles des relations du travail en Europe depuis la deuxième guerre mondiale

Les données nouvelles des relations du travail en Europe depuis la deuxième guerre mondiale

Jean-Réal Cardin

Volume : 20-1 (1965)


Recent Features in European Labor-Management Relations Since the Second World War

Each of the countries under review followed its own course towards industrialization. It is therefore rather difficult, if not impossible, to assimilate them in the development of labour relations without altering to some degree the overall analysis.

Each country set its own pattern in this field and experienced its own industrial revolution in time and space. Consequently, conditions varied from one country to another according to industrialization period, to the predominating sectors of economic activity at that time ; and also to the industrial structure and the degree of technical development and industrial integration of their particular economies.

There are, however, common points characterizing the aggregate from an historical point of view ; if some countries like Sweden and Denmark have not had to undergo the same difficult industrialization phases as England or even France, it must be admitted that the lines of thinking developed in pioneer industrial societies, and the ideologies which evolved from them, were communicated abroad and in a manner of speaking, fashioned a background for the tensions and conflicts which marked as a rule the development of labour relations in the countries under review.

In spite of the expansion resulting from the First World War in most of the countries under review, enterprise in these countries was still, until the last war, centered on industrial production, while services played a relatively minor role.

Briefly then, the situation was the following : relatively few big bureaucracy-patterned complexes with widely subscribed capital as was the case in the United States at that time ; relatively low development in management technocrats who could provide an intermediate class between the owners and the labour force ; population of wage earners and mostly industrial workers, with a relatively small proportion of industrial white collar workers.

In all the countries under review, what essentially characterized the ratio of the forces opposed not only in factories, enterprise or industry but also in the political society itself, was the identification of middle class values with the values of those who held power in any form and any sector.

In the economic field as well as in the political field, the foundation of power is the patrimony. In Europe, the exercise of political rights had long been related to property. The middle class state believed in the doctrine of nonintervention in economic matters. The employer, whose values were the same as those of the community and of the political powers, decided alone the framework of the rules governing social relations within enterprise.

Until the economic depression of the thirties, government intervention in most European countries was only fragmentary in social and economic fields, without significantly altering the fundamental assumptions of capitalistic economy.

The depression of the thirties, however, modified somewhat the factors involved in the problem in that it greatly lowered the prestige of private enterprise and employers, set back markedly the dominant values, re-oriented government positions towards a greater acknowledgement of social problems.

The Ideologies


Among European employers, the contexts indicated above developed in the group as a whole a very marked conservative ideology. Economies dominating politics, they were not prepared to abandon the power they held in the community, nor to share it with the labour class which, in their eyes, symbolized revolution, disorder and anarchy. They were determined to maintain at any cost their absolute control over enterprise and their influence over public bodies and institutions bearing on public opinion. During the years that preceded the Second World War, because of their refusal to respond to external pressures by public powers, trade unions and public opinion following the economic depression, a new feeling of solidarity was created among them and developed to the point that it constituted a powerful instrument of social and political resistance. This determined the creation of vast employers' associations, which were powerful and well organized to take a stand as united as possible against the organized claims of the workers.

Trade Unions

As for trade unions, which were promoting social and economic demands and confronted at the same time with the political emancipation claims of their followers and indeed of the whole of the working classes, and with what they called management-government collusion in a system of middle class domination and liberal economy, they had no alternative but to join in political agitation and far-reaching social struggle.

In Europe, they represented all of the working classes and from the very first offered the best channel for the overall aspirations of industrial wage earners and the underpriviledged generally. This was not the case in America where, during this same period, there existed almost no class distinctions and where the populations as a whole already had all their political rights.

Therefore, European trade-unionism developed or rather reflected a most pronounced class distinction. They were, rather than functional groups operating mainly on the labour market as is the case in America the expression of a class operating on the very structures of the community where they came into play.

To this end, they adopted the socialist postulates founded on class struggle. On the continent, marxist theories held sway with them and took shape in a total rejection of capitaliste frameworks and even of existing political structures. In France, it was anarcho-syndicalism; in England, it was labourism which, even though not marxist, was nevertheless dedicated to a social reconstruction involving the very foundations of traditional economy. They formed political parties or tied themselves in more or less closely with leftist political groups already formed.

Although they essentially represented a working class, their political affiliations, at least in some countries such as France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, became for them a divisive factor on the ideological plan, either within the socialist groups themselves or because of the religious beliefs of the different working categories represented by them. This ideological fragmentation of European trade unions constitutes a most important factor and should be noted in view of the attitudes that were taken during the years following the war in respect of co-operation and solidarity between trade unions in a concerted economy system.

Structures and Functions


As was already noted, European management in general was characterized by the establishment of employer associations in almost every industrial branch, to negotiate with trade unions and to défend their interests as employers with the public powers. This was done even before the last war and, in some countries, many years before then. It was also characterized by the amalgamation of the branch or industrial associations of all these countries in vast employers' confederations at the national level, no longer in most cases (as we will see later in detail) for negociation purposes, but to ensure a certain homogeneity in the employers' attitudes in connection with the claims made by trade unions for wage policies, personnel relations and social security through negotiations or unilateral action. Another most important objective of these confederations was to represent the general interests of the employers with the public powers and public opinion in connection with legislative measures in the fields of labour and industry, national employment policies, salaries, government-operated social security plans, and all decisions at the national level that could affect their members in some way or another.

Trade Unions

For their part, trade unions, which had been established within the contexts and the ideologies outlined above, were naturally structured in conformity with these associations.

Attention should first be called to the highly centralized nature of trade unionism at the trade or industrial federation level, i.e., at the branch or economic activity sector level. The centre of trade union power is found mainly at this level.

At the enterprise level, there were relatively very few confederations as a rule and in some countries there were none at all.

Collective agreements constituted a highly centralized process at the industrial branch level, very often on the national or at least a regional plan involving all or the great majority of the enterprises operating in a given branch.

In Europe, collective agreement laws themselves required this by providing only for regulations for individual labour contracts determining minimum working and salary conditions and therefore not geared to, as a whole, the overall aspects normally covered in detail by our North American agreements.

Those are a few of the traditional characteristics of European labour relations systems at least until the last world war. An attempt should now be made to underline briefly some of the changes which these countries experienced after the last war.

The Post-War Years and the Changes in Those Years

It is interesting to note the tremendous progress made since the last world war, by most of these countries, towards greater co-operation between the agents of their respective economies. The observer is at the outset struck by the far-reaching changes, at least in osme countries, in the conditions and the spirit in which labour relations are carried out, so much so that the structures established, as was already mentioned, because of social strife, very often became the very institutional foundations for greater co-operation between the social partners and the natural channel improving the dialogue with the public powers in an increasingly « concerted » economic system.

The New Technology and the « Prosperity Economy »

In the realms of technology and economies, some important factors should be mentioned. Since the end of the Second World War, most of the countries in Western Europe have entered a « new industrial revolution ».

Industrial concentration became prevalent, technical development progressed rapidly ; investments increased and achieved greater diversification ; markets expanded with the establishment of « great units » represented by the various European « communities », of which the Common Market is the most important. The dimensions of enterprise were changed as it acquired gradually the stature of big limited and bureaucracized corporations in the hands of technocrats who were in the process of creating a new and primary functional category in modern Europe.

New salaried classes appeared : professionals, technicians, « staff » in general ; the tertiary services developed and brought about changes in employment structures and labour force characteristics.

The New Power Structures

On the « political » scene, that of the structure of powers within European communities and that of ideologies, a few essential factors of change should also be mentioned.

In connection with European management, it was already noted that the economic depression between the two wars had considerably undermined its status with public opinion ; the last war, except in England and Sweden, continued this trend.

On the other hand, brade unions, even though they had been dismenbered in numerous countries during the occupation, were very strongly invigorated after the war and enjoyed a higher status than they had ever achieved before because of their participation in the « Resistance ». They symbolized progressive forces and democratic values. They were needed for reconstruction. More than ever, public opinion was favourable to what they represented.

The public powers, for their part, had to intervene increasingly and become active partners in economic and social affairs.

The Re-orientation of Ideologies

In consequence, the ideologies of the social partners underwent changes. One of the key explanations for the change in the mentality of the participants to the industrial relations systems in the countries under review, which was in fact given by most people interviewed in these countries, was the experience of war itself. This was a ready-made melting pot for mutual aid by different interests in industrial relations faced with a common enemy, at least in occupied countries. The atmosphere of co-operation between trade unions and management and between trade unions themselves, created during the Resistance years, continued on. The parties concerned emerged from the war with changed mentalities and attitudes. The solidarity achieved during the war years was maintained in part to carry out successfully the national reconstruction program.

As a general rule, a certain decline in conservatism was observed amongst European employers, who became more « scientific » and better disposed towards an objective dialogue with the other social partners. Also, government intervention was more readily accepted.

Trade unions underwent, in our opinion, an even greater change under the new conditions prevailing in Western Europe during the last period of about 15 years. As was mentioned by B.C. Roberts during our stay in Great Britain, the term « socialism » and for that matter the term « capitalism » are now only slogans which are gradually losing any valid connotation in the present situations.

The struggle of the classes, although it is still purported in theory to be the justification for labour unions in France more particularly, gives rise to an increasing cleavage between official statements and the actual union operations in negotiations and daily discussions with enterprise and the public powers.

There seems to be a progressive detachment of labour confederations from leftist parties as unions become more diversified in the social classes they represent, more business-like and functional pressure groups rather than defenders of a class within the political community.

In connection with the structures and functions of union and management institutions since the war, we can state that, if the ideological and political environments in which they operate have changed as has been shown, they have not undergone significant changes legally and formally. Nevertheless, new legislation and modified or additional organizations were established in the last twenty odd years in Europe and this is what we will attempt to determine in a further presentation.