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Ian H. Birchall

The Common Market and the Working Class:
An Introduction

(Winter 1966/67)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67, pp.10-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

1. Positive or Negative?

In the period 1961-62, when the entry of Britain into the European Common Market was last on the agenda, this journal adopted a position of neither ‘for’ nor ‘against.’ It was heatedly accused by many sections of the Left, and even by members of its own Editorial Board, of a negative and isolationist attitude. Now, as Britain once more edges its way towards Europe, it is crucial to analyse our position rigorously so that we may try to avoid the recurrence of old confusions on the Left. However, it should be said that there are in fact two opposing but equally negative approaches to the Common Market on the Left. Both are equally inimical to international socialism, since both divorce internationalism from socialism. There are some, like Tribune, for example, who want socialism now, internationalism later; who fear that the Rome Treaty will inhibit Britain’s ability to ‘plan her own economy’ in security. On the other hand, many continental social-democrats have praised the Common Market in the name of the ancient proletarian abstraction of ‘internationalism,’ putting off for the distant future the question of who should control internationally. The course of events has exposed both these negative positions as illusory. Those who believed that ‘socialism in one country’ was a viable alternative for Britain have now had the opportunity of seeing the socialist potential of a Labour Government. Meanwhile, the commitment of European social-democratic parties to corporatism and neo-capitalism has killed any hope of a gradualist transition from internationalism to international socialism.

Hitherto, the battle between these two viewpoints has been so keenly fought that there has been no opportunity for the development of a genuine positive European policy for the working-class movement. International Socialism has offered little more than a symbolic curtsy in the direction of ‘The United Socialist States of Europe.’

Discussion in the trade union movement usually falls into two categories – issues are either ‘trade union’ or ‘political.’ While wages and conditions are examined in terms of worker against capital on the shop-floor, other questions – especially foreign affairs – are seen in national rather than class terms, and a trade unionist’s attitudes tend to be governed more by his position in the Labour Party spectrum than by his industrial situation.

The need now is for discussion of the European Common Market to be couched in ‘trade union’ and not ‘political’ terms. Workers must leave aside Britain’s economic situation and political role in the world, and think in terms of common demands and action between workers’ organisations internationally. This article will attempt, in broad and approximate terms, to delineate some of the problems facing European workers in the coming years.

2. The Unions and Europe

Attitudes to the Common Market within the European trade union movement have tended to fall into the ‘political’ rather than the ‘trade union’ category. In 1955 the European Regional Organisation of the ICFTU [1] organised a conference for the revival of the European idea. The statement it issued set the tone for most discussion on the Common Market among the free trade unions.

‘The necessity of raising living standards and securing full employment in all countries is the reason why the free trade unions seek European-wide solutions of economic problems. The free trade unions demand that every step towards economic co-operation and integration should be accomplished within the framework of a policy of full employment and social progress in general, including an upward adjustment of social conditions.’ [2]

This mood of acceptance of capitalist rationalisation, along with a failure to build international workers’ organisations, persisted in 1963, when the ICFTU-affiliated unions of the EEC countries, meeting at Dortmund, made their main demand the transformation of the existing community into a United States of Europe. [3]

The Fourth General Assembly of free EEC trade unions in 1965, however, noted with some regret that ‘social policy carried out so far has not kept to the timetable laid down by the Rome Treaty.’ But the main solution offered was to call upon the Commission of the Common Market to ‘improve consultation between workers and employers.’ A more significant event, albeit still on the level of abstraction and without any consideration of the methods of struggle, was a report by Otto Brenner of the German metal-workers, calling for a common programme of demands, including the forty-hour five-day week, longer holidays, and equal pay for men and women. [4] The International Federation of Christian Trade Unions, too, puts ‘Europeanism’ well ahead of the defence of workers’ interests. Its General Secretary wrote in 1957:

‘Nor will it be possible to speak with force and pride of Europe and her mission in the world, so long as Europe does not understand that her centuries-old experience in the economic and political field, like her cultural inheritance, is of no value if it is not placed at the service of the other continents, with a view to raising them to a higher level, instead of being wrongly used to hamper their development.’ [5]

In contrast, the opposition to the Common Market of the WFTU seems closer to working-class militancy. In fact, its view was just as much motivated by Cold War politics, and led to a distortion of working-class perspectives. In 1957, Louis Saillant, speaking for the WFTU executive, said:

‘With the active backing of the United States monopolies, the European capitalist monopolies are using the European Common Market as a means to overcome the contradictions which stand in their way, and to co-operate in exploiting the resources of Western Europe and certain countries in Africa. Under these conditions alignment of the social and economic policies of the six European countries concerned can only lead to levelling down of living conditions for the workers as a whole.’ [6]

The obvious short-term falseness of this last prediction, especially as far as Italian workers were concerned, led the EC of the Italian CGIL in 1957 to issue a statement which, while expressing deep economic and political reservations about the Market, concluded that it was generally a ‘good thing.’ This statement led to great debate and gradual reorientation within the WFTU, and at its 1965 Conference, the WFTU favoured work with other union bodies in the institutions of the Common Market.

Thus, there is still a long way to go before we can speak of a working-class strategy for Europe. The two main questions that have to be answered are: first, what sort of demands can be made on a European scale and, second, how can workers’ organisations achieve a greater degree of co-ordination and unity?

A. Common Demands

3. Wages

Article 117 of the Rome Treaty says: ‘Member States hereby agree upon the necessity to promote improvement of living and working conditions for labour, so as to permit the equalisation of such conditions in an upward direction.’ Further provisions lay down the principle of equal pay, and the principle that overtime rates should come to correspond with those in France. [7] This principle of ‘upward harmonisation’ was welcomed by many European trade-union bodies. Its basic unreality under capitalism, however, was quickly seen by Ludwig Erhard, who wrote:

‘With the catchword of “harmonisation” the demand went so far as to suggest that at the end of the transition period, the level of wages in the individual member States should be equalised, and that their total working costs should be “equivalent.” It would be possible to ignore this demand, since economically it is simply unrealisable, for between Sicily and the Ruhr equal productivity does not exist, and there cannot therefore be “equal” working costs. Wage costs at their respective levels are determined by productivity, and not by an assumption of equal performance.’ [8]

Only the Italian trade unions, faced with wage levels well below those in other Common Market countries, have shown any enthusiasm for international bargaining on wages. Complexities of prices, hours worked, overtime pay and exchange rates between currencies make the principle of comparability almost impossible to operate. But in any case the principle of ‘upward harmonisation’ could very easily conceal a pretext for holding back the wages of better-paid workers – thus, of course, weakening the combativity of workers throughout Europe. There is some evidence to suggest that wage rates are increasing fastest in those countries where they had hitherto been lowest [9]:


Ratio of

Average increase
in employers’
expenditure on wages
and related costs
per cent



















Nonetheless, wage levels remained substantially different in different countries of the Market. The yearly average net earnings for an underground coal worker with no children have risen as follows (1954=100) [10]:
























Some comparative net yearly incomes of married male wage-earners with-no children in 1962 show the following picture [11]:


(Figures in thousands of Belgian francs)

and weaving
of wool

of machine






















To this should be added the fact of sharp regional variations within particular countries. Thus it has been estimated that during the 1950s per capita income in the South of Italy was about 45 per cent of what it was in the North. [12]

Upward harmonisation, then, can be no more than a soothing platitude, except in two situations. First, where labour mobility is a practical reality (increasingly important); and second, where organised labour is prepared to fight. To take examples:

  1. In the early 1960s, Holland, attempting to enforce an incomes policy, was faced with a critical labour shortage. This was aggravated by the fact that many workers were crossing the frontier to Germany in pursuit of higher wage rates. On 31 March 1963, 24,229 Dutch workers were employed abroad (24,000 in Germany) as against 4,628 in March 1960. [13] Faced with strikes and labour shortages, the Dutch employers themselves broke the incomes policy.
  2. According to the Rome Treaty, equal pay for men and women was to be realised by 31 December 1961. This was later postponed to 31 December 1964. By February 1966, women workers at the Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre, at Herstal, near Liege, Belgium, decided they had waited long enough. 3,000 women struck for eleven weeks. Not one of the 5,000 men employed at the factory scabbed. Banners were carried reading ‘Women of the Common Market, forward to a decent wage,’ and the Rome Treaty (for the first time on record) was cited in negotiations. Finally equalisation, as from 1 January 1967, was won. [14]

4. Conditions

While upward harmonisation of wages seems unlikely, the standardisation of conditions throughout the Common Market is a popular target. As long ago as 1955, the Italian CISL called for a common European standard of daily working hours, overtime payments and holiday pay, though it later dropped this. [15] The French FO too has looked forward to international agreements on holidays and hours. [16] The 1960 variations in hours and holidays in the European metal-working industries are shown below [17]:



days of




18 minimum




28 minimum




29 minimum




20 minimum




33 minimum


It is, of course, unreasonable to expect ‘upward harmonisation’ to be given out of charity by the EEC authorities; gains will be won only where workers are strong enough to force them. Nonetheless, the demand for an all-round increase to the best existing conditions in any country provides a useful rallying-point which may help to raise expectations and encourage workers to think in international terms.

5. Control

The struggle for wages and conditions brings workers up against the basic fact of capitalist society – the fight for control. A key example of this sort of struggle was the Italian metal-workers’ strike of 1962-63. This was fought on two parallel sets of demands – for considerable increases in the basic wage, but also for extension of the rights and powers of the unions in the factory. Although the employers expressed willingness to negotiate on the wage demands as early as September, 1962, the strike continued, on a partial basis, till February 1963, when the unions won considerable rights on such questions as the classification of skills, work speeds, rates of pay for piece-work and the organisation of production. [18]

This is, of course, only a beginning; and demands for union rights are meaningful only if combined with a struggle for genuine inner-union democracy. This struggle for democratis-ation in the unions is being waged in Holland and elsewhere. [19] In the long run, it may in fact turn out that, while regional variations in wages and conditions make a common programme of demands impossible, the demand for workers’ control will be the central feature of a common strategy for European unions.

6. Planning and Trade-Union Integration

But it is not only for the purpose of making demands that trade unionists throughout Europe need to coordinate their activities: it is also for the defence of trade-union independence. Throughout the six countries, trade unions face a twin threat. On the one hand they (or at least their leaders) are offered a share (albeit a minority share) in the planning mechanisms of capitalism; on the other hand, trade unionists contemplating militant action to defend and advance their positions are threatened with legal deprivation of their hard-won traditional rights. The whole argument on trade-union independence cannot be set out here. [20] Trade-union support for incomes policy in Holland, State subsidies to the trade unions in France, bonuses to unionised workers in some industries in Belgium – all form part of the same pattern. Two particular examples of union integration are to be found in the French planning machinery and the German Works Councils.

In the various commissions making up the French planning structure – the most advanced in Western Europe – there is about nine per cent representation of trade unionists as against forty-one per cent of employers. Nonetheless, Parliament must accept or reject the plan as a whole. The German Works Council Law legally imposes the principle of co-operation between workers and employers; workers’ representatives are not only enjoined to secrecy about confidential information, but are forbidden to agitate politically, and must remain neutral during strikes. [21]

Regrettably, almost all European unions take an ambiguous attitude to integration, despite verbal insistence on the necessity for trade-union independence. A prominent CFDT leader has advocated being ‘present in order to fight.’ [22] At one time the CGT refused participation, but the line changed with a statement on 7 January 1963:

‘We must put an end to indefensible discrimination, and assure our representation in the ILO, the European Steel and Coal Community, the EEC and all the administrative councils of the nationalised industries.’ [23]

By participating in the planning machinery at firm, national or international level, unions are associating themselves with decisions they cannot control, and weakening their own members’ will to fight. The nebulous advantages claimed in return are outweighed by secrecy provisions; any information that may be won cannot be freely communicated to the rank and file. Union militants intent on an aggressive European strategy must therefore constantly demand of their leaderships whether cooperation with national employers and the national state is more fruitful than international co-operation with European workers.

7. Defence of Trade-Union Rights

Legislation and threats of legislation against the right to strike also exist on a European-wide scale. [24] Coordination and exchange of information between workers is here more than ever necessary; for battles have been won on this front. Thus in Belgium a series of draft laws were put forward which would have seriously reduced workers’ rights. The Left of the Belgian Socialist Party and the FGTB fought these vigorously, and eventually article 421, strengthening central control over the police, was withdrawn, and other clauses were amended. This was only a partial victory, but shows that struggle can be successful.

Sometimes, too, evasion may pay off. In 1963 the French Government passed a law that all strikes in the public sector must be notified at least five days in advance; this would seriously weaken the effect of strikes, for this would give the Government time to prepare to send in troops, or make other arrangements. However, workers realised that it was possible to give notice without going on strike, and so regain the advantage of surprise over the authorities. International discussion on concrete tactics to defend trade-union rights and independence must be a priority wherever international meetings of trade unionists from the Common Market countries occur.

B. Organisation for Unity

8. The Existing Bureaucracies

If European workers are to unite in demands and in self-defence, international organisation is a prime necessity. There are, of course, international trade-union bodies in profusion already. Three have substantial membership in the six countries of the EEC; the ICFTU leads with nearly eleven million affiliated workers; the WFTU follows with around five million, while the IFCTU has something short of two-and-a-half million. The inadequacies of the three union bodies are threefold – political, organisational and financial.

(a) The commitments of the ICFTU and the WFTU to cold-war politics are well-known. The history of the creation of the ICFTU by dividing the European trade-union movement in half, liberally aided by American money, needs no repetition, any more than does the WFTU devotion to Russian foreign policy, and its attendant reluctance to discuss trade-union questions at all, for fear of giving the wrong ideas to its Eastern European members. [25] As for the IFCTU, its attempt to set up a separate Christian trade-union centre in post-war Germany must label it as an enemy of working-class unity. [26]

(b) The hierarchical nature of international bodies makes them particularly cumbersome as a means of linking workers. Any communication must rise and sink through several layers of bureaucracy, being well filtered in the process. A sympathetic observer is sceptical of the value of the ICFTU European Regional Conference:

‘The fact that Conference meets only every two years tends to lessen its direct influence on policy issues, and a meeting as heterogeneous as an international trade-union conference is rather more unwieldy than the average delegate conference. This is accentuated by the language problem.’ [27]

In modifying their organisations to meet the needs of the EEC, both ICFTU and WFTU have concentrated more on representation in the official bodies than on co-ordinating workers’ struggles.

(c) Much of the finance for the International Solidarity Funds of both ICFTU and WFTU comes from outside Western Europe, and both have been seriously weakened financially in recent years. [28]

The ICFTU, IFCTU and WFTU may for some time continue to serve as one channel of contact, and as a platform for policies; but it would be foolish to have higher hopes of them.

9. Industrial Link-Up

If the official international bodies do not meet the purpose, what alternative to them can be realistically proposed? The ideal of an international shop-stewards’ or rank-and-file organisation must be seen as Utopian for the moment. The difficulties which beset stewards trying to link up within their own industry and country are well-known. But almost insuperable difficulties would be added in the case of international link-up: problems of language, time and expense of travel, as well as the fact that the forms of rank-and-file industrial organisation differ greatly from one country to another. [29]

The real hope for a practical development of European working-class co-operation seems to lie along the lines of linking workers in the same industry in different countries. Sometimes this may be done through the existing trade sections of the ICFTU or the WFTU; often a fresh initiative may be necessary. This should ensure that the discussions of workers are concrete and related to practice. When European workers gather together, their discussion is usually about the European spirit, or about Vietnam; when European metal-workers assemble, they will probably discuss the engineering industry. Maximum rank-and-file participation in such meetings is of course vital. What needs to be explored, then, is the possibility of linking workers, particularly those employed in the growing number of large international companies, and workers involved in the same industry, particularly those industries beset with special problems in the Common Market. This must include improving communications between workers in different countries, and studying the possibility of genuine solidarity action.

10. The Tactics of International Capitalism

The Common Market is not just the legal provisions of the Rome Treaty. These are just one aspect of a profound transformation in Western European capitalism. In 1961, the Financial Times described the effects of the Common Market on French industry in these terms:

‘One basic reason for the confidence is that French industry has been stimulated by the Common Market to transform its structure. Almost every day there is news of a merger or a take-over ... Even more results are to be expected from agreements between French and foreign firms. Many American firms, rather than setting up subsidiaries, now prefer to buy their way into minority holdings of French firms. Old established French firms ... are now assiduously courting new American capital. There has been a similar influx of German capital – an estimated DM65 million in the first half of 1959, four times the corresponding figure for 1958.’ [30]

European capitalism is being forced to think more and more in supra-national terms. Many of the newer industries – electronics, nuclear power, synthetic fibres, etc – show far-reaching international specialisation. [31] In 1964 Ernest Mandel wrote: ‘In the last four years we have seen every year about 1,000 conferences of employers’ groups from the six EEC countries and Great Britain.’ [32] The growth of international firms, producing the same product in several countries, poses a particular threat to workers. Examples from the car industry will show the extent to which this problem has developed. By 1964, General Motors was producing 578,300 vehicles a year in Germany, and 250,000 in Great Britain; Ford produced 384,550 vehicles in Germany, and 588,000 in Great Britain; Chrysler 170,000 in Great Britain and 273,000 in France. [33]

Michael Barratt-Brown has outlined the challenges made to workers by the giant international companies, including ‘switches of production made between plants in different countries to offset the influence of strikes, wage claims, taxation charges, tariffs and other restrictions. The “appraisal” of new techniques and new products “in good time” is a euphemism for a whole network of commercial and industrial espionage to watch new research and developments, and ensure that patents and licences are effectively policed. Finally, agreement can be reached among the giants themselves – tacit or explicit – that the most damaging forms of competition, particularly price competition, may be avoided.’ [34]

11. Problem Industries

The need for international union co-ordination on the level of specific industries is made clear by looking at the problems of some of the major industries in the Common Market. In many industries the problem of overproduction, with consequent sackings, is a constant one. This is particularly true in the coal industry. European overproduction of coal has hit West Germany and Belgium especially hard. German coal production in 1965 was reduced from 142 million tons to 135 million tons, but the stockpile increased from 8 million tons to 16 million tons and showed no sign of diminishing. Cuts in production of 10 million tons were planned for 1966 and 1967, leading to the dismissal of 60,000 miners. [35] The violence in the Belgian coalfields in February 1966 followed pit closures leading to the sacking of 60,000 Walloon workers and 4,000 Flemish workers. [36] In cotton textiles too, there have been mill closures in Italy and Belgium, and reduced output in France and Holland. In Italy it is estimated that one third of spindles are surplus to requirements. [37] As for the automobile industry, it has been estimated that by 1970, European car production will have reached a capacity of eleven million vehicles a year, while the market will be able to absorb at the most eight millions. [38] If workers of different nationalities are not to be set at each others’ throats by the decline of these industries, international union co-ordination is essential.

Modern industries such as electronics present quite different problems. Jean Auger outlines them thus:

‘Decision making centres have shifted: stage one – from Lyons, Nantes, Bordeaux to Paris; stage two – from Paris to Eindhoven, Milan, Zurich, Detroit, New York. Decisions and enterprises are in America or in other countries while the remainder of work is divided between several factories located in different European countries; thus technological and economic crises will weigh necessarily on the European workers. Employers will not hesitate to exploit this division of labour to exercise pressure on their workers ... Electronics is one of the sectors of French industry where the most advanced units of production are employed. The technique used has been called saupoudrage (sprinkling) – not more than one factory per zone, with each factory being on an average about fifty miles away from the next one. The purpose of this is to avoid competition for labour, and to make it easier to discipline employees.’ [39]

Finally, of course, international union co-operation is crucial in the international transport industries. The Air France strike of 1965 was broken by hiring aircraft from foreign operators [40], and more recently there has been talk of legislation to permit Air France to recruit foreign staff [41], which could be a means of strike-breaking.

12. Progress So Far

Faced with these problems, the initiative so far taken by trade unionists to establish international link-ups seem pitifully inadequate. Nonetheless, there has been over the last few years a perceptible quickening in the growth of international contacts. For many years the Italian CGIL has complained that the official machinery of the WFTU is of little use for dealing with concrete trade-union problems, but is good only for political phrase-mongering. Now a series of meetings have been held between the CGIL and the French CGT to discuss the specific problems of the Common Market. However, they have so far confined themselves to rather vague general demands, and with concern to get themselves accepted into the official Common Market bodies. A more concrete theme animated the conference on automation, organised by the German union IG-Metall in 1965. [42] However, this conference too confined itself largely to hearing learned papers, including some from governmental representatives, and did not come to any specific proposals for action.

The most interesting developments are those linking unions of the ICFTU and WFTU. In February 1966, the Italian CGIL participated in a conference on trade-union liberties in Spain sponsored by leaders of the Belgian ICFTU-affiliate FGTB. [43] Even more significant was the decision, in 1964, of the Federation Fransaise des Travailleurs du Livre, a printing union belonging to the French CGT, to request affiliation to the International Graphical Federation, the printing section of the ICFTU. It gave as its principal reason for seeking affiliation the need to co-ordinate with other Common Market printing unions. [44]

The French CFDT has extended its pragmatic approach to work with other unions to the international field. It participated in the London conference on the Concorde airliner, attended by British trade unionists, and representatives of the CGT, CFDT and FO; it contacted CGIL officials and militants from Olivetti factories; and participated with the CGT in conferences on Mediterranean agriculture, together with Italian, Yugoslav and Algerian unions. [45] Fragmented and bureaucratic as such conferences may be, they must be supported as breaking the shell of national self-sufficiency.

13. Exchange of Information

In most official statements on European union co-ordination, the ‘exchange of information’ is given prominence, probably because it seems harmless enough, and does not commit anybody to anything.

In fact, the exchange of information is a crucial need. Two sorts of information are required. First, general information about the problems of capitalism in the six countries, and about the nature of working-class organisation. Second, specific information on details of wages, conditions, holidays, etc, for use in bargaining, as well as facts about tactics used against measures taken by employers and governments, such as antitrade-union legislation.

One vital need is an international workers’ press. The official union internationals, and especially the International Trade Sections of the ICFTU, do collate and spread information, but inadequately. Various publications of different sorts exist giving valuable information to militants. Trade Union Press, published fortnightly in Prague, [46] gives selections from the trade-union press of many countries; the pro-Soviet rhetoric can be disregarded. The International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Associations News Bulletin is a model of an international trade-union paper, giving details of bargaining and gains throughout the food industries. An independent magazine, the International Socialist Journal, published simultaneously in English, French and Italian, gives useful analyses, despite some over-concentration on leadership rather than rank and file. But the field is still wide open for a practical, factual journal specifically geared to the Common Market. As an incitement to action, we might notice that an advertisement in The Times [47] offers, for only £75 a year, Opera Mundi Europe, a special weekly bulletin on the Common Market. How long before the workers have a similar organ of information?

14. Solidarity Action

Ever since the CGIL resolution on the Common Market of 1957, militant trade unionists have been calling for united action by workers to combat the increasingly close-knit front of the European employers. But although, as we have seen, contact between workers has greatly developed, solidarity action, has not as yet reached any significant level. Partly, this is a question of communications. With the short, unannounced, unofficial strike, increasingly important nowadays, there is little practical possibility of summoning aid from overseas. But even in cases of prolonged and massive struggle, such as the Belgian general strike or the French miners’ strike, international solidarity is limited. A perceptive article from the trade union press analyses the situation.

‘During the month-long Belgian general strike in the winter of 1960-61 workers all over the world showed their sympathy with the Belgian strikers by sending money and aid in kind. Let us say that this aid covered at the most the cost of one day of the strike. Joint action by all European trade unions to prevent the undermining of the strike would have been far more effective. The real problem was to prevent electric power, stopped at the Belgian power plants, from nevertheless reaching Belgian industry through the neighbouring countries, to prevent the ships which the Antwerp dockers refused to unload from being unloaded anyway at Rotterdam, Southampton or Hamburg, and so forth.

‘The same applies to the French miners’ strike: we have heard of funds being collected and sent to the French unions, but we have not heard of co-ordinated action to stop coal and fuel shipments to France. Press reports indicate that the dockers of Gdynia (Poland) and Odessa (USSR) were instructed not to load coal shipments to France. Whilst we welcome any move that will strengthen the French miners’ position, we also recall that a Polish ship docked at Gijon in the midst of last year’s miners’ strike in the Asturias and insisted that the coal the Spanish dockers refused to handle be loaded by the Spanish army.’ [48]

Leaving aside this last aspect – the bad faith of certain so-called workers’ representatives – a deep problem remains. Improved channels of communication and internationalist education will not alone solve the problem for international solidarity is not a question of ‘sympathy’ but of real self-defence.

15. The Problem of Migrant Workers

One field in which the question of internationalism is raised concretely for trade unions of the Common Market is that of migrant workers. The Rome Treaty explicitly encourages labour migration, and the acute labour shortage in some regions, coupled with the surplus of unemployed in areas like Southern Italy, makes it necessary. In addition to migration within the Common Market, there has also been a vast influx of labour from outside.

The Belgian coal-mines have 46,146 foreign workers out of a total labour force of 90,639, including 17,325 Italians. German coal-mining employs over ten thousand Turkish workers, while French iron and steel manufacture employs thirteen thousand Italians and eight thousand Algerians. [49] Germany employs l,300,000 Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks and Turks in all. [50] In France, the Fourth Plan’s target of 350,000 immigrant workers was surpassed over a year before the five-year spell was completed, and 1965’s immigration figures are higher than 1964’s. There are over two million Algerians, Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese in France. Illegal entries rose to 76,921 in the first seven months of 1965. [51] The Italian Government runs a special training scheme for workers intending to emigrate within the Common Market.

These figures give an idea of the magnitude of the problem. The difficulties raised by migrant workers for trade unions are threefold:

  1. Undercutting of wages. In France, for example, immigrant workers have been encouraged as a source of cheap labour. Most immigrant workers live in extreme poverty.
  2. Reluctance to organise. Even with internal migration, where language and cultural differences are not so great, it is noticed that in Italy (migrants from the South) and Germany (refugees from the East) migrant workers are difficult to unionise.
  3. Dangers of racialism. In France, over 50,000 immigrant workers live in virtual apartheid in bidonvilles around the great towns, in rough shacks without gas, electricity or sanitation. In Belgium, the dangerous national friction between Flemings and Walloons is accentuated by the presence of large numbers of foreign workers.

16. The Unions and Migrant Workers

In general, the response of the European unions to migration problems has remained on the level of abstraction. The ICFTU platitudinously welcomes labour mobility, while the DGB has expressed chauvinistic fears that unplanned immigration may threaten German wage-levels.

However, it seems that the problems will become more acute. An article in Le Peuple (official organ of the CGT) in January 1966 expresses alarm that among the CGT rank and file demands are growing for suspension of immigration, and, among building workers, for priority dismissal of immigrants. [52] Two changes small in themselves, are worth noticing. At the beginning of this year, after news of dismissals, expulsions, arrest and imprisonment of Italian workers in Belgium for their part in the Limbourg miners’ strike, and associated struggles, the CGIL sent a delegation to Belgium to meet the Belgian miners’ union affiliated to the FGTB; talks were held, and plans made for a continuation of the discussions, which bridged both national and ideological barriers. [53]

In June 1964, the French CGT organised a national conference of Algerian workers, attended by 234 Algerians and 142 French workers. Although this was followed up locally in only a few regions, it marked the start of a campaign for complete equality of social benefits for immigrant workers. [54]

17. Political Barriers

Constant obstacles to trade-union co-operation and co-ordination throughout the Common Market are, of course, the political and religious divisions running through the Western European labour movement. Only in West Germany are the majority of unionised workers organised in the same federation. [55] The causes of these divisions are many. In Belgium, the divisions between Catholic and Socialist unions can be explained, not only along national lines, but in terms of the history of industrialisation in Belgium since the late nineteenth century. [56] In France too, regional factors are important, the FO being strongest in the Centre and South, while the East and West show a greater following for the CFDT. But divisions in the working-class have been encouraged and fomented by its enemies. The story of the splits in the European trade unions in the immediate post-war period, the role of George Meany (aided and abetted by the Pope), is well known. In Italy, private employers, the State and foreign unions cooperated against CGIL.

‘For many years the American unions have contributed money to UIL and CISL, especially the former. Fiat and Montecatini, the two largest Italian companies, allegedly long helped support these same confederations as part of their fight against GGIL, and it is likely that UIL still receives subsidies from this source. The Ministry of Labour makes some funds available to the unions for vocational training.’ [57]

In the pre-war period it is arguable that union divisions were not wholly harmful. Mandel writes of Belgium: ‘Open rivalry developed, each trade union trying to outbid the other, which incidentally did much to improve the living standards of the workers.’ [58] But in the modern situation, divisions obviously weaken. Where more than one union federation exists, the closed shop is virtually impossible to obtain; in the Netherlands, for example, it is unknown. Union divisions are certainly one cause of the low level of union membership in most Common Market countries; workers are willing to follow any leadership for concrete demands, but do not see the point of paying dues. For many years sectarian hostility between union bodies was high. The WFTU called the ICFTU ‘the splitters of the working class,’ while Social-Democratic union leaders saw Communist-dominated unions as mere ‘transmission belts’ for Party policy. Recently, however, under the influence both of the decline of the cold war and of pressure from ordinary workers for unions that will give priority to trade-union problems, a new climate has developed.

18. Unity in Practice

The evolution towards trade-union unity in the Common Market countries has been a long and halting one. As long ago as 1953, the UIL and CISL in Italy signed a pact of co-operation – but a major item was ‘common opposition to international communism.’ [59] Relations between Communist and non-Communist unions have involved at worst sectarian strike-beating, at best cautious pragmatism. Thus until recently in France:

‘As one CFTC activist put the matter, the FO is really a State institution and it would scarcely affect its participation in negotiation if it were to lose its rank-and-file membership entirely. Since the CFTC does not wish to stand alone, it allies itself with the FO. On the factory level, however, the CGT is the main force. Its support there is easily as large as that of the other confederations put together. The same logic which dictates co-operation with the FO at the national level calls for the choice of the CGT as the proper partner on the local scene. The CFTC is nothing if not pragmatic.’ [60]

In Italy, the position has been the reverse of this; while the Catholic CISL long refused any co-operation with the CGIL, the social-democratic UIL accepted unity of action. In Holland, the Catholic NKV and the social-democrat NVV have recently worked closely together, and all three federations have reasonably friendly relations.

Moves towards unity have gone much further at the bottom than at the top. In some French factories – for example Machines Bull at Saint Quentin – CGT and FO have long had cooperation. [61] In 1957, a campaign for a ‘Mouvement Syndical Uni et Démocratique’ (a united and democratic trade-union movement) was launched by rank-and-file militants from CGT, FO and FEN (teachers’ union), and has existed ever since. Big industrial conflicts foster unity. The French miners’ strike was supported by all three union federations. At the beginning of 1966, for the first time since 1948, all three metalworkers’ unions in Italy joined in the submission of a common list of demands to the employers’ associations. [62] In the Belgian General strike, many CSC members joined the strike despite Archbishop Van Roey’s violent condemnation of it. [63] Within the last year, significant moves have been made towards unity from the top. On 10 January 1966 the French CGT and CFTD signed a joint communique. This spoke of five common demands: better wages and conditions; protection of trade-union rights; reduction of non-productive expenditure; guarantee of the right to a job; reform of the fiscal system. It concluded with the promise of further meetings. [64] Bergeron, secretary-general of the FO, saw this as a Communist plot to ‘absorb and destroy democratic organisations such as ours.’ [65] But in May 1966, all three Italian unions met together, although they went no further than to promise further discussions of collective agreements and trade-union finance. [66]

No illusions need be created about such meetings. They are the product, not of a bureaucratic change of heart, but of working-class weariness with ideological wrangling. Thus far they have not gone beyond pious professions of faith, and they may actually facilitate union integration by the State. But they at least create a climate where the cold war theology can be seen as irrelevant to working-class activity.

19. The Myth of Political Unity

The struggle for a genuine unified working-class movement must not, however, be confused with some of the demands for ’political unity’ raised on the Left. The Communist Parties, pursuing a ‘Popular Front,’ perpetuate this confusion. [67] A united Left in the present situation cannot be a revolutionary Left; but a non-revolutionary united left serves only to obscure the issues. Thus in France, since de Gaulle took power, three figureheads – each associated with the disreputable Fourth Republic – have been raised to unite the opposition. Each has sought to obscure, in a flood of rhetoric about ‘democratic planning,’ the central issue facing French workers: the integration of the unions into the planning machinery of the State. Thus M. Mendes-France:

‘If subsequently other elements in the nation do not respect the plan, if they try to evade any of its disciplines, the unions are there to enforce what has been agreed, what has rightly been called a contract.’ [68]

And M. Gaston Defferre:

‘Our duty is to use planning and the possibilities of a genuine market economy ... I don’t believe we can proclaim at the same time the shortening of the working day, the lowering of the retirement age, the raising of wages, and the increase in the rate of expansion.’ [69]

Finally M. Mitterand managed to gain Communist and non-Communist support – at Renault all three unions united to work for him [70] – mainly by the device of having virtually no explicit programme at all.

In Italy, the recent unification of the PSI (Nenni socialists) and PSDI (Saragat Social-Democrats), a logical consequence of PSI participation in the Centre-Left Government, may cause serious tensions in the CGIL, where PSI members have long worked alongside Communists. PSDI members belong mainly to UIL:

‘Viglianesi, the head of UIL, accepted De Martino’s suggestion that the members of the new unified party should be allowed for a certain time to choose between the two unions, but he stressed that the final goal was to form a “Socialist trade union” by which he meant that PSI members should leave the CGIL and join the UIL.’ [71]

The West European trade-union movement is undergoing a complex dialectic of depoliticisation and repoliticisation. On the one hand, trade unionists, and even trade-union leaders, are realising the growing irrelevance of traditional political alignments. In 1961, Novella, the Communist President of CGIL, said:

‘In our opinion it is not useful that the trade unions should adopt political slogans or diplomatic positions which are not generally shared and which, as experience shows, are subject to revision.’ [72]

Even before the CFTC took the step of laicising itself to become the CFDT, its teachers’ section had strongly opposed State subsidies to Catholic schools.

But simultaneously, the trade-union struggle for wages, conditions and control is increasingly opposed centrally by the State and international capital; and hence the need for political solutions. This process can only be hindered by premature and opportunistic calls for a united Left.

20. Conclusions

This survey has been, of necessity, superficial. Each section deals with topics which are worth a whole article, even a book, to themselves. Some of the recommendations for action put forward here could be put into practice now; many will be relevant to British workers only when Britain enters the Common Market. But at least this article may help to open a dialogue oft European tactics and a European policy. In particular, the views of our European readers on the caricature of themselves here presented would be very valuable.

The European working class has remained nationalistic for the same reasons that it has remained wedded to reformism: in the short-run capitalism is able to satisfy its demands and aspirations within these limits. The day has not yet come when revolutionary internationalism is on the agenda. Until then, the task of building a framework of international contacts and cooperation presents itself with increasing urgency.


This appendix lists the various trade-union bodies existing in the Common Market countries. Figures of estimated membership have been taken from several sources; they should, however, be regarded as very approximate.

International bodies

WFTU: World Federation of Trade Unions. Founded in 1945; split in 1949, since when its membership, outside France, Italy, India, Indonesia, has been largely in Soviet-bloc countries.

ICFTU: International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Founded in 1949 by the anti-Communist breakaway from the WFTU; in Europe, most of its affiliates are broadly ‘social-democratic.’

IFCTU: International Federation of Christian Trade Unions. Has existed since 1920; refused to merge with WFTU after war. Largely Catholic, but has Protestant (Holland, Switzerland) and Buddhist (Vietnam) affiliates.


14 million wage-earners; 3.3 million unionised (23.5 per cent). A catastrophic fall since the immediate post-war period when around seven million workers were unionised.

CGT: Confédération Générale du Travail (WFTU). Two million members (61 per cent of unionised workers). In effect controlled by the Communist Party, though a non-Communist opposition gets up to 25 per cent support at congresses.

CFDT: Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (IFCTU) 800,000 members (24 per cent). Changed its name from CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs chrétiens) in November 1964, and adopted new statutes which made it no longer an explicitly Christian union – though it remained an IFCTU-affiliate. In recent years it has grown in membership, both among manual workers (metal-workers) and in the new industries (electronics).

FO: Force Ouvrière (ICFTU). 500,000 members (15 per cent). Has been strongly anti-communist in policy. A large part of its membership comes from civil servants and postal workers.


11,500,000 wage earners, of whom 5,100,000 unionised (40 per cent). CGIL: Confederazione generale italiana del lavoro (WFTU). Three million members (59 per cent). Members of both Communist and Socialist (Nenni) Parties work in it; many of its officials now belong to the PSIUP (Italian Socialist Party for Proletarian Unity), a Left break-away from the Socialist Party.

UIL: Unione italiana del lavoro (ICFTU) 300,000 members (6 per cent). Has links with Social-Democraic Party (Saragat) and Republicans, but no official political ties.

CISL: Confederazione italiana sindicati dei lavoratori (ICFTU). 1,800,000 members (35 per cent). Has very close links with the Christian Democratic Party. Is strongest among white-collar workers.

West Germany

Twenty million wage-earners, of whom 7,250,000 unionised (36 per cent).

DGB: Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (ICFTU). Seven million members – 97 per cent of unionised workers, only a fragmentary Christian union existing outside. Is divided into various industrial sections; the most militant, politically and industrially, is IG Metall (metalworkers).


2,750,000 wage-earners, of whom 1,530,000 unionised (55 per cent).

FGTB: Federation Générale du Travail de Belgique (ICFTU) 800,000 members (52 per cent). Strongest in the Walloon areas, where industrialisation took place in the late nineteenth century.

CSC: Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens beiges (IFCTU). 730,000 members (48 per cent). Strongest in the Flemish areas, where industrialisation took place in the inter-war period.


3,500,000 wage-earners, of whom 1,100,000 unionised (31 per cent).

NVV: Nederlands Verbond van Vakverenigingen (ICFTU). 500,000 members (45 per cent). Links with the Labour Party (Partij van der Arbeid).

CNV: Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond (IFCTU). 211,000 members (19 per cent). A Protestant organisation.

KAB: Katholiche Arbeidersbeweging (IFCTU). 389,000 members (36 per cent). A Catholic organisation.


Has 100,000 wage-earners, of whom 33,000 are unionised. 22,000 belong to the ICFTU-affiliate, and 11,000 to the IFCTU-affiliate.


1. See Appendix for abbreviated names of all organisations mentioned in this article.

2. R. Colin Beever, European Unity and the Trade-Union Movement, Sythoff-Leyden, 1960, p.44.

3. Analyses et Documents, 54.

4. Analyses et Documents, 91.

5. Beever, Op. cit., p.87.

6. Ibid., p.74.

7. Ibid., p.151.

8. Erhard, Prosperity through Competition, Thames & Hudson, 1962, p.214.

9. European Community, June 1966.

10. Basic Statistics of the Community, 1965, p.133.

11. Ibid., pp.134-35.

12. M. Edelman & R.W. Fleming, The Politics of Wage-Price Decisions: A Four-Country Analysis, University of Illinois Press, 1965, p.9.

13. Ibid., p 260.

14. European Community, June 1966; Trade Union Press, No.14, 1966.

15. Beever, Op. cit., p.244.

16. Ibid., p.229.

17. The Times, 4 July 1966.

18. Michael Bosquet, Aspects of Italian Communism, in Ralph Miliband & John Saville (eds.), The Socialist Register 1964, pp.87-88.

19. Cf. Theo van Tijn in International Socialist Journal, 2.

20. It has been developed ad nauseam in the pages of International Socialism and Labour Worker.

21. Social Policy in Germany, Federal Ministry of Labour, pp 23-29.

22. Socialisme et Planification, I, Cahiers du Centre d’Études Socialistes, Paris, p 16.

23. Analyses et Documents, 43.

24. Cf. International Socialist Journal, 1.

25. Cf. A. Giacotnetti in International Socialism, 8.

26. Beever, Op. cit., p.89.

27. Ibid., p.41.

28. Cf. R. Nelson in International Socialism, 21.

29. Much research needs to be done on this. Unfortunately collated information is hard to come by.

30. Quoted in New Left Review 12, p.6.

31. Cf. S. Mallet, Continental Capitalism and the Common Market, New Left Review, 19.

32. neue kritik, 22.

33. Analyses et Documents, 80.

34. European Captalism and World Trade, in The Socialist Register 1966, p.146.

35. The Times, 11 March 66.

36. The Times, 2 February 66.

37. The Times, 11 October 65.

38. P. Mendes-France, A Modern French Republic, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1963, p.104.

39. International Socialist Journal, 13, pp.22-23.

40. The Times, 25 November 65.

41. The Times, 9 April 66.

42. Cf. International Socialist Journal, 9, pp.375ff.

43. Trade Union Press, No.4, 1966.

44. International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Associations, News Bulletin, August 1964.

45. International Socialist Journal, 7, p.106.

46. Sent free on application to WFTU Publications Ltd, 6 Chichester Chambers, Chichester Rents, Chancery Lane, London WC2.

47. The Times, 25 September 65.

48. International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Associations, News Bulletin, March, 1965.

49. Basic Statistics, pp.30-31.

50. The Times, 8 August 66.

51. Trade Union Press, No.6, 1966.

52. Trade Union Press, No.6, 1966.

53. Trade Union Press, No.9, 1966.

54. Analyses et Documents, 74.

55. See Appendix.

56. Cf. E. Mandel, The Dialectic of Class and Region in Belgium, New Left Review, 20.

57. Edelman & Fleming, Op. cit., p.13.

58. New Left Review, 20, p.14.

59. J. La Palombara, The Italian Labor Movement, Cornell 1957, p.174.

60. Granick, The European Executive, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962, p.195.

61. S. Mallet, La Nouvelle Classe Ouvrière, Editions du Seuil, 1963, p.120.

62. World Trade Union Movement, May 1966.

63. S. Simon, La Grève Générale Belge, Correspondences Socialistes, 1961, p.25.

64. Trade Union Press, No.4, 1966.

65. Analyses et Documents, 111.

66. Trade Union Press, No.13, 1966.

67. For a useful history of the French CP’s allies since 1945 see Histoire du Parti Communiste Francais, Editions ‘Unir,’ Volume III, produced by a group of dissident party members.

68. Les Travailleurs Peuvent-ils gérer L’Économie?, Cahiers du Centre d’Etudes Socialistes, Paris 1963, p.33.

69. Le Monde, 12 December 64.

70. International Socialist Journal, 13, p.51.

71. Ibid., p.74.

72. International Socialism, 8, p.11.

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