Workers solidarity in the EU multilevel system: When and where can it occur?

Author: Andreas Bieler, University of Nottingham (UK)

Trade unions have the task to organise collectively and establish relations of solidarity amongst working people. And yet, they have often found it difficult to extend this solidarity across borders within the European Union (EU). In this blog post, I will argue that while the capitalist dynamics of Uneven and Combined Development (U&CD) make transnational solidarity often difficult, it is not impossible either. Especially if we expand our understanding of labour movements beyond trade unions and also include social movements such as environmental groups in our definition, then labour movements have on a number of occasions demonstrated their ability to defend the interest of society against capitalist exploitation. Most notably, I will refer to the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) ‘Water and Sanitation are a Human Right’ as well as the resistance against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).


As a result of the way of how capitalist production is organised around wage labour and the private ownership of the means production, there are a number of key capitalist structuring conditions. First, as not only workers compete with each other for employment, but also companies are in constant competition with each other over market share, capitalism is an enormously dynamic mode of production. Second, the tendency to replace workers with modern technology in this competitive race, however, implies regular capitalist crises. Third,

to overcome these crises, there is constant structuring pressure to expand outward in desperate search for new, profitable investment opportunities. This outward expansion is underpinned by dynamics of uneven and combined development (Bieler and Morton 2018: 38-41).


U&CD implies that different national labour movements find themselves in rather different locations within the European political economy. While trade unions in export-oriented growth models such as Germany or Sweden are likely to be supportive of free trade, unions in demand-oriented growth models such as Greece or Portugal may be wary considering that this has often implied deindustrialisation for them. European integration often pits different national labour movements against each other (Bieler and Salyga 2020). In more concrete terms, when General Motors organised ‘beauty contests’ over new investment amongst its various production sites in Europe in 2005/2006, Polish trade unions rejected demands for solidarity. Against the background of a lower level of development than locations in Western Europe, they negotiated concession agreements with management to secure expansion of their production site (Bernaciak 2010: 36-8).


Nevertheless, while the capitalist structuring conditions make transnational solidarity difficult, it is not impossible. Capitalist outward expansion is always contested and it is in these moments of class struggle that relations of (transnational) solidarity can be forged. This is even more the case, if we expand our understanding of organisations, which are relevant for labour movements. As feminist Social Reproduction Theory informs us, capitalist accumulation does not only depend on exploitation of labour in the workplace but also on the expropriation of unpaid labour in the sphere of social reproduction such as the household (Bhattacharya 2017). Equally, post-colonial theory reminds us that capitalist exploitation also requires the expropriation of racialised bodies visible in the multiple forms of unfree labour. World ecology literature, in turn, demonstrates that the expropriation of cheap natures is key to capitalism’s ongoing outward expansion (Moore 2015). As a result, struggles over the human right to water in the sphere of social reproduction, against policy brutality by the Black Lives Matter movement (Issar 2021) and the resistance to fracking in defence of the environment are also moments of class struggle. And it is in these broader movements encompassing trade unions, social movements, environmental NGOs, feminist groups and citizens’ committees, that relationships of transnational solidarity have been established successfully across the EU multilevel system.   


The ECI ‘Water and Sanitation are a Human Right’ is the first example I want to present here (Bieler 2021: 79-100). In 2012/2013 the European Federation of Public Service Unions coordinated a European-wide campaign for the human right to water and managed to collect almost 1.9 million signatures forcing the European Parliament and Commission into adopting an official position. Key to this success was not only that the campaign at the European level was replicated in a whole number of national settings, but also the broad alliances which underpinned the campaign. Trade unions, concerned about water privatisation and the implications for jobs and working conditions in the water sector, worked together with environmental groups and their aim to preserve nature, developmental groups and their fight for the human right to water across the world as well as citizens’ committees and their worries about drastic price increases due to privatisation. In the process, they established lasting relationships of transnational solidarity, which continue challenging water privatisation in a number of European contexts today.


Moreover, between 2014 and 2016, the STOP TTIP coalition, made up of 500 civil society organisations including trade unions, other social movements and NGOs, heavily campaigned against a new ‘free’ trade agreement between the USA and the EU. The treaty was perceived to undermine democracy, empower transnational capital via investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms and generally endanger social and environmental as well as food safety standards in the EU (Hilary 2014). After two years of sustained multilevel campaigning, the negotiations reached a dead end within the EU institutional setting and were eventually abandoned in 2017 (Caiani and Paolograziano 2018).


In sum, while relations of transnational solidarity are anything but automatic between workers and labour movements across the EU, both the ECI ‘Water and Sanitation are a Human Right’ as well as the STOP TTIP campaign have demonstrated that transnational solidarity is possible as a result of joint struggles.