The first step towards the creation of a European super-union was taken yesterday when one of Britain's biggest trade unions signed a joint membership agreement with its German counterpart.
The unprecedented deal between the GMB general union and IG Chemie means that more than 1.8 million workers in the two countries will be entitled to mutual membership when working abroad. About 120,000 people working either in Britain or Germany are expected to benefit from the link, which was hailed by both sides as a model for co-operation between unions in different European Union member-states. However, the development is likely to be viewed with alarm by Tory MPs as an example of the European social model which ministers claim would shackle competitiveness and restrict the freedom of business under a Labour government.
The union movement in Britain has taken an increasingly pro-European stance over a decade and believes that it can match the growth of multi-national companies in the single European market only by developing closer continental ties.
The GMB was the first British union to open an office in Brussels, and pioneered European-style works councils which cover 46 firms with plants in both Britain and other EU member-states. For several years it has been co- operating informally with IG Chemie, which covers workers in the chemical, ceramics and paper industries, and is talking to other unions about further agreements elsewhere.
John Edmonds, the GMB general secretary, said: "It is important for workers to have quality representation wherever they work." Hubertus Schmoldt, the president of IG Chemie, said from his union's Hanover headquarters: "Our goal will be the creation of a joint membership at European level to be able to achieve minimum standards on bargaining agreements for all workers."
The deal means that any GMB member working in Germany will have have the right to IG Chemie membership, and vice-versa in Britain. However these rights vary, as the unions offer different services to members. British workers in Germany will be eligible for legal advice, support from representatives, and training facilities. German workers in Britain get legal advice, health and safety information, and financial benefits.