It must be recognised that general typologies of trade unionism are neither static nor absolute, in that trade unions are generally not absolutely fixed at a particular point, as they constantly adapt to the economic, social and political contexts within which they function. Hyman (2001) referred to this as ‘the eternal triangle’ of market, class and society that characterises the trade union position. Taylor et al. (2011) argue that the ‘path shaping’ decisions of trade union leaders are constrained and conditioned by the historical path-dependency of labour movement development in specific nation state formations. Thus, national variance within the liberal democratic states of Western Europe is inevitable as trade unions endeavour to maintain the ‘balance’ between class solidarity and national interests.
However, for the purpose of analysis here, the trade union movements within the countries discussed are located within a broad-based four-point typology (as in Figure 2 below) in order to examine the different responses. While, as Hyman (2001) points out, the clash between ideological visions of trade union identity has led in most European countries to a fragmentation of labour movements with competing models of trade unionism within them, one system will generally be dominant. The classification below identifies the dominant trade union types within the countries under analysis. As can be seen, and as reflected in Hyman’s ‘eternal triangle’ while trade union movements in some countries may be clearly identified with one particular model (e.g. Sweden), others such as Ireland occupy a space between two.
The Scandinavian/Social model is a social integrative model based on centralised bi-partisan bargaining, characterised by a strong state, strong unions and strong society and a highly supportive social welfare system alongside continuous trade union involvement in socio economic decision-making and support for growth delivering productivity. Also known as the ‘Swedish Model’, Sweden is the strongest example of it, while the Netherlands too shares features with it, particularly in relation to the strength of both the societal role and the social welfare system (Taylor et al., 2011; Knocke, 2000; Roosblad, 2000).
The Rhenish model is led by Germany and characterised by co-determination, a cautious approach to neo-liberalism and a commitment to minimising conflict. It is a mixed model of social dialogue and corporatism within a coordinated market economy (CME). German unions are seen as having an ideological commitment to practices of codetermination and social partnership which are deeply institutionally embedded (Taylor et al. 2011; Behrens 2002). While this model of codetermination may have some features specific to Germany, it also shares many features with Austria where there is a highly developed corporatism with centralised and strong trade unions. The Dutch model also shares some features, as it too has a form of codetermination and continuous involvement in socio-economic decision-making. It is strongly corporatist and institutionalised with political support and influence. However, it also shares features with the Scandinavian model (Penninx and Roosblad 2000).
The Anglo-Saxon Economic/Business model, most closely identified with Britain in Europe, is characterised by the centrality of free collective bargaining and the ‘regulation of conflict’. Resistance to statutory regulation of collective industrial relations is a feature of this model, which is founded on the traditions of voluntarism (low level of state intervention) and economism as part of a Liberal Market Economy (LME). The philosophy of laissez-faire, central to British industrial development, influenced industrial relations approaches and Hyman (2001) maintains that in Britain the model/orientation has not changed substantially, it is just that the power of the unions has been weakened. British unions had no history of corporatism. Alongside Britain, Ireland was also an example of this model previously though, in the 1980s, it moved closer to the German model (Taylor et al. 2011; Wrench 2000; 2004).
The Mediterranean model is one of political unionism and is characterised by being oppositional and having weak political connections and influence. Spanish, Italian and French unions fit into this model, where trade unions are excluded from the institutional mechanisms of the state and are not included as partners in national socio-economic decision-making. In the case of all three countries, union confederations are politically divided and organisationally weak. Italian and French industrial relations have a ‘conflict orientated image’ (Erne 2008) while the Spanish unions, which emerged during a period of dictatorship, are moving into a more neo-corporatist phase of engagement (Richards 2009; Kahmann 2002; Lloyd 2000).
In Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden trade unions have been part of a corporatist decision-making structure in relation to labour issues. In Italy and Spain, what could be termed a semi-corporatist model applied where the trade unions had some input into decision-making but their influence was either weak or facilitated informally and thus dependant on political linkages. In the case of both Britain and France trade unions have never been part of the socio-economic decision making system.
While Ireland shared the voluntarist British model up to the 1980s, there was then a radical change with a shift to a much more corporatist approach with the advent of social partnership in the 1980s – a very different response to recession than that of the UK. Traditional collective bargaining became secondary to legislative and nationally negotiated agreements. In Ireland, from then onwards, unions held a strong role in the corporate decision making process, a process that Roche and Cradden define as having evolved into ‘competitive corporatism’ by the 1990s (2003). Erne sees the Netherlands and Ireland as sharing similar traits, particularly that transition to competitive corporatism (Erne 2008; Rhodes 2000).