The antics of anti-globalisation protesters, rather than traditional labour movements celebrating workers in struggle, may capture the May Day headlines nowadays. But all is not quite as it may seem. Over the next few weeks in Europe, we are likely to see evidence that the unions are back in a militant mood after years of defeat and decline. In Germany, organised labour is mobilising against Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's economic reforms; Italian unions are the main resistance to Silvio Berlusconi's efforts to deregulate the labour market; in France and even in comfortable, consensual Austria, the unions are uniting against the governments' plans to scale back state pension commitments.
But the most significant event in labour's calendar for May will be the tenth congress of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in Prague. Until now, the 30-year-old ETUC - which represents 60 million workers in 34 countries - has seemed to be just a behind-the-scenes lobby haunting the corridors of the European Commission in Brussels. But now it finds itself almost alone as an effective defender of the "European social model".
At Prague, John Monks of the British TUC will take over from the ebullient Italian Emilio Gabaglio as the next general secretary. A new ETUC manifesto will be launched, calling for a European social and political union that goes beyond the single currency and single market. It endorses high welfare state spending, collective bargaining, more redistributive taxation, strong unions, and public services free from private control.
Many in the ETUC believe Tony Blair and new Labour want to write the unions out of the European modernisation agenda. Peter Hain, as the voice of the British government to the EU's constitutional commission, is required to try to water down any warm words about equality, social dialogue and partnership in the preamble to the EU draft constitution. In public, not even new Labour can argue openly against workers' rights and social justice. But with Roger Liddle from the Downing Street Policy Unit in close attendance, Hain has to watch his step.
To the chagrin of the British, the ETUC can rely on the European employer bodies to back social dialogue; even many right-wing parties are positive about the role of the unions. But despite their differences over Iraq, Blair got support from Schroder and the French president, Jacques Chirac, for his vision of a more employer-friendly Europe. In a joint letter that conspicuously lacks any mention of social rights or even labour protection, they call for more liberalisation, an end to new regulation that impairs business competitiveness, and a review of existing labour market laws - which probably means increasing the powers of employers to hire and fire at will. The EU has also agreed that Wim Kok, the Dutch former prime minister, should chair a working party - which has no union representatives - to come up with labour market reform proposals by December.
Understandably, therefore, the ETUC's Prague manifesto reads at times like a programme for rearguard action. Yet under Gabaglio, the ETUC embraced change. It backed both the single market and the common currency. It works amicably with employers on negotiated regulation and backs EU plans to create jobs. Monks is a moderniser in the same mould.
But Monks wants to seize the initiative and make the ETUC more relevant in the enlarged EU. This entails getting away from the old ETUC ethos, which tended to reflect the interests of white manual workers in manufacturing industry. It must reach out to women, young people, immigrants and generally those in the unorganised service sector who make up the new and more diverse European working class. Without abandoning the old values of solidarity and collective bargaining, the unions will have to give more attention to quality of employment: workplace discrimination, training, childcare facilities, more flexible hours.
The new agenda lurks between the lines of the Prague manifesto. But European trade union structures are often not flexible enough to respond to social and occupational change. In southern Europe particularly, the unions remain social movements as much as workplace bargain-makers. In Italy and Spain they are among the most effective opponents of right-wing governments. The temptation is to return to strikes and solidarity action in a delusionary reassertion of worker power. Monks has to steer between those in the unions who want to go backwards and the neoliberals, who want to sideline organised labour. It will not be easy but Monks's ETUC, while giving trade unionism a modern face, promises to become the most formidable movement of resistance to Blair's anti-worker and pro-business European agenda.
Robert Taylor is a research associate of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics