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Forward to Trade unions without frontiers (ETUI, 2001)

By Emilio Gabaglio, ETUC General Secretary, 2001

To unite the multiple components of the European trade union movement within a single organisation has been a constant endeavour in the history of the ETUC.

The novelty and the interest of Juan Moreno's work lies in the analysis and discussion—based on a reconstruction of the events surrounding the affiliation to the ETUC of the Spanish Comisiones Obreras—of the circumstances and reasons which made it particularly difficult to achieve unity with one such historical component, namely the Communist-leaning trade union confederations.

It is well-known that the ETUC has its origins in a single current of European trade unionism, that of the free trade unions whose leanings were, in their overwhelming majority, social democratic. The ETUC was indeed founded, in February 1973, by a total of 17 national confederations, all of them affiliated to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (including the UGT, illegal at that time in Spain), with a view to creating an organisation capable of meeting the challenges to trade unionism posed by European integration.

However, that the intention was, from the beginning, to strive to extend the new confederation to include trade unions belonging to other currents of the labour movement is quite clear from the decision, reached after heated internal debate, not to include in the title of the ETUC the adjective free, in view of the partisan connotations entailed, at that time, by this term. The ETUC thus came into being as a unitary, pluralist and autonomous project.

The practical achievement of this project was to encounter no particular obstacles where the Christian trade unions (affiliated to the WCL) were concerned, insofar as they shared the same trade union model, as well as a commitment to the process of European integration and to the form of unity of action already existing at European level. The Christian trade unions were in fact received into membership of the ETUC just a year after its founding, on the occasion of the 1974 extraordinary Congress. The subsequent process of affiliating the trade unions with Communist leanings was to be much more complex and protracted, accompanied in every case by procrastination and the need to allow the situation to mature, if not by burning controversy.

The CGIL was the exception to this rule. This confederation was accepted into membership of the ETUC as early as July 1974, even before it had completely broken its links with the WFTU (which it was to do in 1978) but after it had reduced its involvement in this organisation to that of associate member.

This was an important exception, considering that membership of the WFTU, the international trade union organisation identified with the Soviet Union and the Communist countries, was regarded as grounds for exclusion from the ETUC. The exception is explained above all by the full support for CGIL affiliation given by the CISL and the UIL (ETUC founding members) in the framework of the policy of trade union unity prevailing in Italy in that period.

This condition of support, always a determinant factor in decision-taking by the ETUC Executive Committee, was for many years lacking among the sister organisations in Spain, Portugal and France. It is thus that the affiliations of the CC.OO. (1990), the Portuguese CGT Intersindical (1995) and the French CGT (1999) were able to take place only when the other confederations in their respective countries already belonging to the ETUC, or a significant section of these constituencies, had come out in favour of their membership in the light of changes in relations among the trade unions at national level.

Naturally, at least in the case of the French and Portuguese confederations, other factors were also of relevance in their coming to be accepted as ETUC members. The most important such factor was the changed attitude of these trade unions to European integration, which they no longer rejected out of hand but had agreed to take on board as an economic and political fact, although retaining towards it a critical stance along the lines of ETUC policy.

The Spanish Workers' Commissions, who occupy the centre of the stage in this book, represent a further exception in the sense that their affiliation was the occasion of a particularly harsh internal clash which even went so far as to imperil, at the beginning of the 1980s, the very existence of the ETUC.

If Juan Moreno can hardly be expected to demonstrate the distance of a historian, insofar as he was a direct protagonist of many of the events narrated, we do well to acknowledge the even-handed approach he seeks to bring to his analysis of the various positions, on the basis of documentation that is in large measure still unpublished.

From this documentation it emerges that, in the reconstruction phase of Spanish trade unionism after the end of the Franco era, the reasons underlying the solidarity with UGT expressed, on the basis of kindred historical and political sentiments, by a decisive section of the European trade unions were allowed, for a long period, to take precedence over those underlying the legitimate claims of CC.OO. to ETUC membership.

This organisation's application for membership was founded not only on its representative and democratic character but also on its pro-European stance, adopted as from the time of its founding, on its choice to remain outside the WFTU and, again, on its refusal to endorse this latter's efforts to create an alternative grouping with the other Communist trade unions at that time excluded from the ETUC. Only the stabilisation of the Spanish trade union scene and the development of the unity of action between UGT and CC.OO., inevitably not without its ups and downs, was to allow the subsequent accession of the latter to the ETUC.

As shown by this book, European trade union unity has been forged and consolidated in the course of a rough journey along a path not devoid of contradiction.

This makes the result achieved even more significant. The ETUC is indeed today the only unitary organisation in an international trade union panorama still characterised by divisions which, though appearing less justified with every passing day, remain, nonetheless, all too real.

While acknowledging the specific nature of the European experience, linked as it is to the process of European integration, may we express the hope that this experience will not remain, for too much longer, an exception.