The New Statesman Profile - Emilio Gabaglio

The cigar-smoking Italian who has tried to unite the workers of Europe. Emilio Gabaglio profiled

We are less than four months away from a seminal moment in the modern history of Europe. From 1 January next year, 12 of the 15 member states of the European Union will form a common currency area. For good or ill, the arrival of euroland will help to integrate what is destined to grow into one of the world's great economic and political blocs. The prospect of economic and monetary union does little to raise the spirits of many on the democratic left across the continent. They fear a Europe ruled by austere and unaccountable bankers who are more concerned about ensuring monetary stability and low inflation than conquering mass unemployment and creating a more prosperous and just society.

A people's Europe may yet turn out to be a mirage. So much of the EU's complex architecture has grown from the top down, responding to bureaucratic initiatives rather than popular demand. The idealistic visions of Jean Monnet and Jacques Delors for the creation of an open, generous and democratic united Europe have often been forgotten in the unedifying and seemingly endless scramble of conflicting national and materialistic interests.

This is why the creation of a cohesive European labour movement is widely seen as a necessary precondition for the EU's successful integration. Without the active support of workers across the continent, it is argued, the creation of a new Europe will be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish.

At first sight, the European Trade Union Confederation (the ETUC) may seem an implausible body to help bring about such a necessary outcome. It is true that almost all the national trade union centres of Europe are now represented inside the organisation. The ETUC claims to cover more than 60 million workers in 29 countries from west to east. The end of the cold war has led to ETUC membership for both trade union bodies from former communist countries and once communist-dominated trade union organisations from France, Spain and Italy.

But for much of the early part of its short life, the ETUC was hardly a substantial organisation. The confederation was founded in 1973, 17 years after the Treaty of Rome created what was then the European Economic Community. The organisation initially seemed to be of marginal importance, sitting on the sidelines of European integration and out- gunned by powerful transnational corporations and governments unsympathetic to any pan-European labour agenda. The EEC's main emphasis was on dismantling borders and regulations in the formation of a free market. The concerns of workers were hardly considered at all. Efforts to develop a substantial social agenda were of limited success. The ETUC had a hard time getting its voice heard as a lobbying organisation.

It was really not until the 1980s, under Jacques Delors's presidency of the European Commission, that the concept of social Europe began to grow in importance. He went out of his way to encourage trade unions across the continent to become a strong countervailing influence against the power of capital and nation states. Calling for the affirmation of basic worker rights and crusading against unemployment, the Delors agenda introduced a new dynamic to the ETUC's stuffy corridors. It is true that the pressure for change did not come directly from the workplaces of Europe. The ETUC's importance was rooted in its capacity to grow as a representative interest group in the often labyrinthine decision-making process in Brussels.

Within clearly defined limits, however, Emilio Gabaglio, general secretary of the ETUC since 1991, has managed to provide the organisation with a human face, and has turned it into a vital independent EU institution. A friendly cigar-smoking Italian with an enviable fluency in five European languages, Gabaglio has proved to be a highly effective figure in the world of EU power-brokering. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. Under Gabaglio's leadership, the ETUC responded well to Delors's challenge.

He believes the emergence of the social dialogue between the ETUC and employer associations such as Unice was a real achievement. It enabled union leaders to bargain collectively with employers outside the legalistic processes of the EU in trying to form and influence key regulations. In addition, the ETUC has grown more indispensable as the workers' voice in relations with the European Parliament and the EU's other institutions.

"We have raised our visibility in decision-making," says Gabaglio. He points to the creation of European works councils in the transnational companies and the employment chapter contained in the Amsterdam Treaty as examples of the ETUC's influence. But Gabaglio also stresses the organisation's success in confronting the menace of neoliberalism and the Ameri-can free market model. The ETUC continues to fight an ideological battle to defend the concept of the European social market economy. However, it has done so not by adopting an obstructive attitude to social and technological change but by seeking to modernise labour markets and industrial relations without repudiating solidarity and workers' rights.

Gabaglio, who is 64, is expected to retire from his post at the ETUC's next congress, to be held in 2003. But he has no doubt that the organisation has an inspiring and realistic agenda for the coming years. The ETUC must become a strong countervailing power in the new Europe. "We have constructed the roof with the euro and monetary union, but not the house," he explains. He wants to see industrial affairs and social and employment rights given a higher priority in the economic governance of the EU. The ETUC will be esssential for achieving this ambition.

Gabaglio talks like others about Europe's democratic deficit and believes the ETUC can contribute to resolving that problem. He is also convinced that the organisation must forge strategic alliances with non-governmental bodies in helping to rein in the globalisation process. The ETUC will remain an eloquent and active champion of the European social model, which Gabaglio believes offers an effective way forward, for many parts of the world, as a credible alternative to the hegemony of US capitalism.

He insists that the trade unions have reached the bottom of their decline and are bouncing back in Europe. Membership is rising again in many countries. The ETUC is providing a lead with its emphasis on the need to develop a positive attitude in response to the spread of new forms of employment, the diversity of private services and the increasing importance of women in the workplace. "Our old battalions are still there in manufacturing, but they are declining," he accepts.

Choosing his words with care, Gabaglio points out that the ETUC must work by consensus and co-operation through the national trade union federations that provide its income. He can and has to think European, but many of them do not do so enough. Some countries fail to give the ETUC the priority it requires and too often view European affairs through the prism of their national concerns. Gabaglio accepts this men-tality will take a long time to change. But then he stresses the need for diversity and pluralism among the trade unions, and he rejects the idea that the ETUC wants to centralise power for its own sake. Customs and tradition, language barriers and structure have always held back the establishment of a powerful pan-European labour movement. These restraints are not going to disappear overnight with the arrival of the common currency.

But two developments may help to break down some of the obstacles to trade union unity. The EU's expansion into eastern Europe over the next few years will provide the ETUC with a new inner dynamic. Already, the organisation is working closely with its affiliate members in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere to ensure a smooth transition period that will protect workers and prevent social dumping, something the German and Austrian unions worry about.

Even more significant may be the emergence of European collective bargaining. Eleven sector federations are linked to the ETUC, and there are already signs of tentative co-ordination in negotiations on pay and benefits transcending national frontiers at the level of sector, region and company. But Europe is far away from developing any harmonised wage system. The euro may help this to grow, but not for some considerable time, if at all. None the less, Gabaglio and others dream of the eventual emergence of a European industrial relations system.

If this happens, the ETUC will certainly have come of age. Realistic or not, it provides the trade unions of Europe with an inspiring objective. Whether it will unite workers across the continent in common campaigns is another matter. The ultimate test of the ETUC's relevance will be whether it can reconcile the world of decision-making in Brussels - where it has secured unrivalled legitimacy - with the messy realities of Europe's workplaces. Can it help workers who are experiencing a profound transformation as they move out of the industrial age into what threatens to be a cold and insecure world of labour?

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot