Accueil » 20-4 ( 1965) » Les relations de travail en Europe occidentale et leur signification au niveau des communautés nationales

Les relations de travail en Europe occidentale et leur signification au niveau des communautés nationales

Jean-Réal Cardin


Dans la présente étude, l'auteur tente dévaluer jusqu'à quel point les systèmes de relations du travail en Europe occidentale sont intégrés aux différentes communautés nationales où ils s'inscrivent. Quelques aspects particuliers de ces systèmes sont soulignés à cet effet.


Labour Relations in Western Europe and Their Significance at the National Communities Level

In view of the new labour relations « atmosphere » in Western Europe, which was described at the beginning of this study, and of the institutional and legal frameworks characterizing them at this time, how do these industrial relations systems fit into the economy as a whole and the political life of the countries under review ?

Some comments are required in order to pinpoint them in the dynamics of national contexts within which they now come.


One of the principal points which distinguish most European countries from the United States and Canada is the much greater role played by the public powers in economic and social matters, especially since the end of the last war.

As a matter of fact, the abandonment of liberalism by the public powers, while increasing their role in labour relations, has carried the action of the social partners from the industrial level to the national level, where meetings are made within vast « co-operation » or at least « dialogue » organizations : The Central Economic Council and the National Labour Council in Belgium ; the Labour Foundation and the Economic and Social Council in the Netherlands ; the Economic and Social Council, and the Superior Commission for Collective Agreements and Plan in France ; the National Economic Development Council in England, etc.

In those countries, such as Germany and Scandinavia, where the public powers seem to intervene least they are just as effective indirectly and sometimes rather brutally in labour relations, when the social partners appear to be incapable of satisfying the political will of the governments. This occurred on several occasions and even very recently in Denmark. When the Employer's Confederation and the LO could not come to an agreement in Denmark during the negotiations of 1962-63, the government intervened and passed an Act which simply extended the existing agreement for two more years.

In Belgium and in the Netherlands, what is remarkable is the positive contribution made, in spite of differing interests and ideologies, by the social partners to the effective operation of organizations such as the National Labour Council and the Central Economic Council in Belgium, and the Labour Foundation and the Economic and Social Council in Holland. It is also the intelligent contribution they make and the systematic canvassing of their participation, advice and resources by the public powers.

In France, labour participation in various public organizations such as the Economic and Social Council, the Superior Commission for Collective Agreements and Plan, was far less spontaneous and often rather weak. At first sight, this may seem to be rather paradoxical, if one knows that the C.G.T., even before the last war, had already submitted a claim for the Economic and Social Council.

But with the post-war political climate, the split of 1947 and the takeover of the C.G.T. by the Communists, and with the increased power of management coupled with its first opposition to State intervention, French labour, because of its congenital weakness, and its attitudes against politics and for marked disputes could not give the same co-operation as in Belgium or Holland.

The fact remains that in France, as elsewhere in continental Europe, trade unions, while maintaining their ideological positions abandoned to all intents and purposes by most other European trade unions, increasingly accept to participate in spite of the fundamental dilemma which now confronts them.1 It goes without saying that this is especially the case of the C.F.T.C. and the F.O., although the C.G.T. itself is re-orienting its attitudes in the face of the ineluctable nature of institutionalized consultation. 2

In our opinion, Great Britain presents the most difficult case in co-operation at the national level. Governmental attempts such as the National Incomes Commission have given practically no results at all. English management is opposed to government intrusion in matters related to income and labour relations. Until now, labour have rejected the concept of a national incomes policy and whereas the T.U.C. adopted a slightly more conciliatory attitude towards the National Economic Development Council, it has not obtained the complete backing of its members.

In Great Britain, a concerted economy policy has not been endorsed without reservations. Management and labour have a deep-rooted tradition of self help and this has done nothing to prepare co-operation with the public powers in economic and social matters within the framework of government policies. It is still the era of « collective laissez-faire », an expression used by professor Kahn-Freund. 3

Structurally, in our opinion, the social partners are not as well equipped in Great Britain as in the other European countries at this time for co-operation at the national level. Even though from the point of view of membership and power in making demands on the labour market, trade unions are more powerful than they are in other countries, the obsolete structures of their frameworks, the multiplicity of organizations, the lack of cohesion in leadership and the little control that the T.U.C. has over its affiliated bodies, are all factors of which the labour movement in Britain is trying to find its essence within itself and cannot, at the national level, project a solid and unified image with the other social classes, public opinion and government.

Management also has the same problems. Organizations such as the « British Employers' Confederation » to name only one do not have even the shadow of the powers of their equivalent organizations in other European countries over affiliated members.

There is therefore less inclination to accept without reservations any great intervention by the public powers since there was not developed truly representative structures such as would be required by dialogue at summit. In our opinion, as long as English management and trade unionism will not have achieved greater representation at the summit, through serious internal reforms of plans, structures and powers (and this would not seem at the moment to be the case),4we do not believe that the union-management-government triangle can operate as effectively as in the other European countries.


In Europe, trade unions seem to co-operate more actively and with less hesitation when they are strong politically. This is the case in Sweden and Denmark where trade unions have very strong links with social democratic parties, and these alliances give them a quasi-public status. This is also the case in Belgium and the Netherlands.

In Germany, France and Italy, and especially in the two latter countries, there has been some tendency for labour confederations to gradually shift away from political parties, as the economic situation permitted them to take more effective direct economic action on the labour market, popular ideologies were watered down with the rise in standards of living, the public parties whatever their political affiliation intervened more in the economy and labour relations and the way was opened for effective participation and dialogue within councils and commissions of all kinds, which « institutionalized » in the manner of speaking demands at the national level.

It must be noted that in Germany, as indeed in France, socialist parties were in opposition and political leaders such as Dr. Erhard were committed to an unplanned economic policy ( Neo-Liberalism ).

Trade unions, at least through their official leaders, seemed to accept the situation and thus consider their labour organizations primarily as business concerns. There was fear in all quarters in Germany of excessive concentration of decision centers, which could lead in time to the destruction of democratic liberties so cruelly crushed under the Hitler regime.

It should be pointed out that, in view of the present political climate in Germany in social and economic matters, as is indeed the case in France, management now is most powerful with the State in implementing government wishes in this field.

Although Great Britain's problems are primarily economic, they are further complicated by economic factors. To take only one example, trade unions in this country conserved more ideological content than other European countries, however paradoxical this may appear to be at first sight. The close ties they maintained with the labour party gave rise to two different problems, the first of which was clearly defined by Bernard Donoughue : « When the government is conservative. the unions have the difficult task of helping to improve the economic record of their political opponents. Co-operation with a labour government will be easier psychologically, yet the basic economic problems will remain ; the unions will still be required to subordinate sectional interest — which may mean limiting the autonomy of the unions in the wages field. Some trade unionists may find this as galling to have their autonomy limited by the politicians they may finance as by those they fight. But can they afford to stand aside from the plans of any government, whatever its complexion, which are aimed at improving the economy of this country, on which the long-term welfare of all trade unionists depends » 5


As was stated at the beginning, the high degree of organization in management constitutes one of the traditional characteristics of European labour relations. We cannot stress this too much, in view of the situation in which Canadian management now finds itself in matters of organization, due to increasing intervention of the public powers in the economy.

In certain countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, management organization is solid and coherent and has existed for a long time, i.e., since the beginning of the century.

As early as 1919, countries such as Great Britain and France witnessed the formation of employer organization extending beyond the framework of one industry. However, with the establishment of the British Employers' Confederation in 1919, Great Britain obtained much sooner than France a coherent management structure. This does not take into account various organizations dedicated in different spheres (labour, regional, industrial, commercial, etc.) to the defence and promotion of the interests of the business world and constituting a very extensive network of representative organizations offering to their members professional, education and technical services.

In the matter in which we are concerned, the most significant phenomenon in post-war years was the gradual accession of European management to positions of prestige and power within their respective national communities, after the marked set-back they had suffered during the depression of the thirties, the take-over of power by fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, and the revenge taken by democratic forces of the left after the Allied victory of 1945 over the Axis powers.

Management confederations in Germany, while they were outlawed by the occupation forces until 1948, were reconstituted as of that year, in spite of the limitations that were still imposed on them, and formed in 1950, under the provisions of the fundamental Act of 1949, which was an approximate recast of the 1919 Act, the « Federal Union of Employer Associations », commonly known as the German Employer Associations Confederation. There are also boards of trade, industrial associations grouped in the German Industries Federation, which has jurisdiction over economic matters, while the German Employer Associations Confederation is limited to social matters, the latter term however including all labour relations problems, particularly salaries.

Management organization in Germany is extremely strong and influential. Amongst the countries under review, German management probably has the most power vis-à-vis the public powers and public opinion. The fact that the declared policy of the Bonn government in economic and social matters corresponds to free enterprise policy and Neo-capitalism is obviously responsible to a considerable degree for this situation.

France also offers a good example of the gradual accession of European management to a new status which is acknowledged more and more.

Traditionally, as we have seen, French management has been individualistic, largely composed of craftmen, conservative and paternalistic to the extreme, organized more or less in relations to other European countries, often routinish in its management functions and labour policies.

When Leon Blum took power with his Front Populaire in 1936, with the serious social crisis that France was then undergoing, an initial attempt was made to achieve a greater and more efficient structure for French management through a transformation of the French Production General Confederation, which became the French Management General Confederation and included not only big industry but also intermediate and small industry as well as trade, and adopted by the same token a structure similar to that of the C.G.T. both in the professional and geographical spheres.

The Matignon Agreement had shown that French management was loath to make any concession whatever to trade unions and it was only under the pressure of circumstances that certain well established positions had been abandoned ( temporarily ) to labour representatives in connection with union recognition, collective agreements, social security and salaries.

While French enterprise always showed strong hesitation for the great reforms that followed Liberation, such as the establishment of a social security in 1945-46, and about the same time for the Plan, to such an extent that it was stated that these measures were passed somewhat « in their absence », their attitudes changed very gradually ; they shifted increasingly towards and admitted an interested acceptance, to a point where they no longer questioned the very principle of such measures. More and more, the C.N.P.F. participated, through interprofessional agreements with the principal labour confederation, to the establishment of a negotiated social security system designed to supplement the minimums provided for in the statutes.

As relations between organized management and government agencies improved and as the dialogue developed, management began to lose its distrust of state intervention, objectives became more realistic and co-operation increased. Today, as was stated before, labour confederations consider this as collusion of sorts between the public powers and the business world.

The fact remains, as was the case for labour, that the dialogue is becoming institutionalized and that both parties are becoming more functional and less emotional and less ideological.

According to the observers, French management is in the process of completely rebuilding its image in social quarters and in the very eyes of labour, which is no small achievement.

This arrival point for German and French management is precisely what British employers seem to be lacking. It may be that government institutions such as the N.E.D.C., should this experience be successful, as we feel it will be, could give similar results on that side of the Channel.

It should be added, although we cannot stress the point, that the situation would appear to be similar in Belgium where the Belgian Industries Federation appears to be very influential even though, in contrast with the C.N.P.F. in France, it is not as representative of economic life, being limited to industry. 6

It should also be noted that management is very influential in the Netherlands. In all phases of labour relations, as well as in legislative texts dealing with them, for example collective negotiations, joint representation at the industry and enterprise levels, co-decision is non-existent and safeguards are always included in connection with management's rights in governing industry.


One of the most obvious consequences of management solidarity in Europe is that, in spite of the centrifugal forces of today's economic situation (full employment, increased productivity, local pressures for individual negotiations, real salaries exceeding and often by far the regulated minimums negotiated at the level of the confederation, etc.) negociations remain centralized in most cases. With the enterprise agreements of the Reynaud type in France and generalized breaches in the official ceilings at the local level in the country as a whole, one would be led to believe that the « national » agreement, gradually losing its substance, would in fact lose all its significance. In fact, North Americans would consider that this phenomenon is already very pronounced.

However, management resistance has succeeded until now in maintaining the traditional negotiations systems and without analysing the economic and social reasons for this, it does not appear that any significant movement towards American decentralization is now being initiated.7

It should be stated in this connection that the rational representatives of labour confederation in all of the countries under review are in agreement on maintaining this practice and would not be partial to any dispersing of the powers they now have.

The public powers who are now involved in delicate programs of balance and development, are not ready apparently to participate without reservations in overthrowing existing institutions.

In our opinion, however, such a system gives rise to two serious problems.

Firstly, the absence of official trade unions at the enterprise level (at least in certain countries) coupled with prosperity and its benefits, in any event obtained or granted unilaterally at the local level, has tended to undermine labour prestige at the base and with wage-earners in general, so that, in certain countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Great Britain, labour membership has tended to decrease and recruitment of new wage-earner classes gradually became more difficult. 8

Furthermore it appears to be clear that in Europe there are serious communications problems at the inter-organization level between labour membership and national leadership. The problem is particularly acute in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain. All the action is at a very high level, where complexities are such that they could not be understood by ordinary members at the factory level. Contacts are lost between members and the general staff, who operate in official spheres and is sometimes surprised of the spontaneous reaction at the labour level. 9

The solution to these problems suggested by B.C. Roberts for Great Britain but, in our opinion, applicable to other European countries, might be to have labour organizations become officially present at the enterprise level, to give a certain status to collective agreements at this level and to give them a new meaning, while maintaining or even increasing in some countries, a stronger authority in hierarchy from top to bottom, in order to ensure better control and greater flexibility to labour industrial activity.10


In spite of the numerous limitations imposed on a general study, one dominant concept stands out quite clearly, in our opinion, from the whole of labour relations systems under review, if we consider them from the point of view of their capability for labour-management-government co-operation. It is that, in spite of drawbacks, which are sometimes serious, that we might find in certain countries at the level of the structures in a prosperity context and at the level of labour democracy conceived in ideal terms, European industrial relations systems in most of the countries under review seem to be more capable of integration in general government social and economic policies than our North American systems would appear to be.

Undoubtedly, all is not perfect, far from it, and sometimes major adjustments would be needed. But essential institutions are already operating with a surprising degree of effectiveness ; mentalities in large part are adapting themselves to the new contexts, a quasi-universal desire, and one could say a divided will to understand the problems and solve them, are as many factors which impress a foreign observer in Europe.

Amongst others, two basic reasons could, in our opinion, account for this situation.

Firstly, the very nature of the systems under review has brought the social partners in Europe to develop a keen sense and a genuine anxiety for the « Community » implications of their decisions and behavior in collective relations and in achieving their group interests.

One is impressed by the broad points of view taken by each partner in evaluating his own interests and his particular problems. They are always considered in the greater perspective of general economic balance and growth problems to which it is readily admitted that, in the long run, the fate of the various corporative groups is linked.

This does not prevent labour unions from presenting demands but they always do so within these general « limitations », a better distribution of power and income for themselves and their members.

A sense of self discipline which old style labour leaders might consider as an abdication or weakness but which, in our opinion, is essential to an era of advanced and increasingly interdependent economy, seems to characterize the attitudes of most European labour movements.

Considering the problems in a broader and long-term perspective there is a growing tendency to « objectivate » their own demands through research facilities of a static and scientific nature.

In this connection, it is interesting to note the great role played by governmental agencies set up in the various European countries to look into economic and social problems since at least 10 or 15 years : economic and social councils, expert groups, national accounting services, plans, labour market offices, etc.

In recent years, study bureaus were established by the various confederations, composed of university professors and specialists and embracing practically all aspects of the problems facing the labour movement, such as The Economic and Social Study Bureau of the F.O. and the Research and Economic Action Bureau of the C.F.T.C. Finally, in some sectors, inter-union organizations were developed with the help of the government, notably the Inter-union Study Bureau of the textile industry, operating on behalf of the F.O., C.F.T.C. and C.G.C. On the management side, an example would be the study and research center for chiefs of enterprise established in 1953 by the French National Management Council in order to promote training of chiefs of enterprise through cyclical studies, discussions, meetings and seminars.

Finally, for the countries of the European Economic Community, the latter factor is important and forces to some extent the social partners of the member states to broaden their horizons and develop between themselves a discussion and adjustment atmosphere in view of economic problems which, while remaining of a competitive nature are nevertheless more and more integrated.

The economic prosperity, to which the various European « communities » have contributed, has made the partners optimistic and this facilitates arrangements and compromise. It would seem that, in these countries, there is no antagonism or difficulty between the social partners as well as between member states, which cannot be resolved by reasoned compromise and pooling of imaginative resources.

The Common Market has not yet considerably altered the components of the various national labour relations systems. However, the common institutions it helped to establish, the basic agreements made possible by the Rome Treaty on various questions, the other agreements signed by member states of other communities, the far-reaching studies undertaken on many problems of primary interest to the social partners, all this new « sociology of European social law » to borrow Professor Arthur Doucy's expression, 11 already seem to be underlying a yet unknown evolution in labour relations institutional and legal frameworks in Europe towards greater cohesion and increasing awareness of the vaster groups and their requirements.

(1) « The fourth plan ( 1962-65 ) witnessed a renewal of labour participation :

281 persons belonging to four big confederations were appointed to commissions

and working groups' », in : J.D. REYNAUD,op. cit., p. 238.

(2) Having maintained its attitude of opposition to the fourth plan until the

eve of its 1963 congress, the C.G.T. witnessed at this congress a rather radical

change in tone and Benoit Franchon implicitly rejected total opposition in his


(3) « The belief in the value of collective bargaining is held with almost religious fervour », cited by W.F. FRANK, The Drift Towards a British National Wages Policy, in Current Law and Social Problems, Vol. III, Toronto, 1963, p. 73.

(4) B.C. ROBERTS,op. cit., pp. 20 and seq.

(5) BERNARD DONOUGHUE and JANET ALKER,Trade Unions in a Changing Society, P.E.P., Vol. XXIX, No. 472, London, 1963, p. 195.

(6) This is also the case for the British B.E.C., the German Employer Associations Confederation and the Italian Confindustria.

(7) It seems that the tendency in Denmark is towards greater centralization. In 1962, both sides agreed to negotiate first at the confederation level and then at the level of the various sectors to adapt the master agreement while prior to this negotiations were carried out at lower levels before agreement was reached at the summit.

(8) On this subject, see ARTHUR ROSS, Prosperity and Labor Relations in Europe : The Case of West Germany, the Quarterly Journal of Economies, Vol. LXXVI, August 1962, pp. 338 and seq.

(9) A recent example was in the Netherlands where tension which led to an increase of the salaries set by the Labour Foundation last year, through a certain « rebellion » of a few big employers, surprised even national labour leaders.

(10) B.C. ROBERTS,op. cit., pp. 8-13.

(11) ARTHUR DOUCY in« Éléments de droit social européen », by LEON-ELI TROCLET, Institute of Sociology of the Free University of Brussels, Preliminary Edition, Brussels, 1963, Foreword, p. X.