European Trade Union Confederation

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European Trade Union Confederation

Europe 1973


On 8 February 1973, 17 European members of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions joined to form the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). As European nations moved toward greater cooperation and unification, European labor unions also recognized the need for a union federation that represented them at the supranational level and offered a trade union counterbalance to the forces of European economic integration. One of the ETUC's primary tasks was to act as a liaison with the European Economic Community and other pan-European institutions. This European focus created some concern among the international labor community that the ETUC could isolate European labor from the rest of the world. The ETUC would later come to represent some 90 percent of European labor unions and was thus the only central labor union organization recognized as an interlocutor by the European Union.


  • 1958: China's Mao Zedong proclaims the Great Leap For ward, a program of enforced rapid industrialization that will end a year later, a miserable failure.
  • 1963: President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas on 22 November.
  • 1968: Communist victories in the Tet offensive mark the turning point in the Vietnam War, and influence a growing lack of confidence in the war, not only among America's youth, but within the establishment as well.
  • 1973: Signing of peace accords in Paris in January ends the Vietnam War.
  • 1973: As the Watergate scandal grows, White House advisers H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman resign, and Nixon fires counsel John Dean. Later, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigns. Then, in the October "Saturday Night Massacre," Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson resigns, and Nixon fires special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus.
  • 1973: Overthrow of Chile's Salvador Allende, the only freely elected Marxist leader in history, who dies in the presidential palace. According to supporters of the new leader, General Augusto Pinochet, Allende committed suicide, but Allende's supporters maintain that he was killed by Pinochet's troops.
  • 1973: Attacked in October, during their Yom Kippur religious festival, the Israelis defeat the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Three weeks later, Arab nations impose an oil embargo on the United States to punish it for its continued support of Israel.
  • 1973: United States launches Skylab, its first space station.
  • 1973: The twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, built at a cost of $750 million, are completed. The 110-story buildings are the world's tallest, but by year's end they will be eclipsed by the Sears Tower in Chicago.
  • 1978: More than 900 members of the People's Temple, led by Jim Jones, kill themselves in Jonestown, Guyana. Also dead is Congressman Leo Ryan, who was visiting the Guyana compound and was presumably murdered.
  • 1983: A Soviet fighter plane shoots down a Korean Air Lines 747 that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers, including 61 Americans (among them U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald), are killed.
  • 1988: A terrorist bomb aboard a Pan Am 747 explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 more on the ground.

Event and Its Context

Toward a European Labor Federation

In the mid-twentieth century, as goals of a Europe united in free trade began to materialize, so did attempts to create a Europe united through the interests of its labor organizations. In 1945 the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was founded in Paris with the participation of the United States and the Soviet Union, though the cold war and an increasing communist dominance of the executive committee caused noncommunist nations to split and form their own organization. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which defended Western-style social democracy and shunned state-controlled unions, was born in London in 1949. In 1950 came the first in a string of social democratic trade union organizations that would result in the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). The European Regional Organisation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (EROICFTU) was founded, with the Belgian union leader Walter Schevenels as its general secretary. Based in Brussels, the confederation included 20 unions from 18 western European countries.

In 1952, when the Treaty of Paris spawned the European Coal and Steel Community (ESCS; the first treaty organization of what would later become the European Union), labor followed with the Trade Union Committee of Twenty-One. This organization included ICFTU-affiliate coal and steel union federations from ECSC member nations. When the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (EC) in 1957, European ICFTU members formed the European Trade Union Secretariat (ETUS), composed of trade union confederations of the six EC member states (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, West Germany, and Italy). The ERO-ICFTU was disbanded and the Trade Union Committee of Twenty-One was absorbed by the ETUS, which in 1969 changed its named to the European Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ECFTU). In 1973, after Great Britain, Ireland, and Denmark entered the EC, the ECFTU merged with the Trade Union Committee for the European Free Trade Area (EFTA-TUC). The purpose of the latter organization, which decided to dissolve at its meeting of 9 March 1973, had been to act as a forum for discussion on increasing pan-European trade union cooperation. The fusion of the ECFTU and the EFTA-TUC was ETUC, known in French as the Confédération Européenne des Syndicats (CES) and in German as the Europäischer Gewerkschaftsbund (EGB).

The birth of the ETUC was not a casual occurrence. As part of a transition period that took into account future expansion of the EC, meetings had been going on for years. The ECFTU and the EFTA-TUC had been in negotiations since 1968. On 1 February 1968, seven national trade confederations from six countries agreed in London to set up an independent Trade Union Committee. The purpose of this committee was to serve as a platform for communication with trade unions in the countries of the EFTA. Between 1969 and 1973 the ECFTU and the EFTA-TUC maintained contact via a liaison committee. In its meeting of 9 March 1973, the executive committee of the EFTA-TUC, given the recent creation of the ETUC, decided to disband the organization

The ETUC Is Born

ETUC was founded on 8 February 1973 by 17 national confederations from 15 countries. Each confederation was affiliated with ICFTU. The organizations met at the first congress held in Brussels on 8-9 February. The federations present represented workers from Norway to Malta, including organizations such as the Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique, the Trade Union Congress, General Workers' Union, Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Unione Italiana Lavoratori, Landsorganisation en i Sverige, Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, Landsorganisationen i Danmark, Confédération Générale du Travail-Force Ouvrière, Unión General de Trabajadores (at that time illegal under the Franco dictatorship in Spain), Confédération Générale du Travail Luxembourgeoise, and Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund. Soon after the first congress, requests for membership came from more than a dozen other national trade union centers. Particularly interested in membership were 12 Christian trade unions affiliated with the World Confederation of Labour-European Organisation (WCL-EO).

ETUC's main goals, as declared in its constitution, were to protect and strengthen European democracy and to represent and promote the economic, cultural, and social interests of laborers at the European level. The organization broached this task both generally and at the institutional level as it represented workers before bodies such as the EC and the EFTA.

The first ETUC president was Victor Feather of Great Britain, who served from 1973 to 1974 and was then replaced by Germany's Heinz Oskar Vetter (1974-1979). The ETUC's first general secretary was the Belgian Théo Rasschaert, who held this post from 1973 to 1975. The deputy secretary was the Norwegian Kaare Sandegren (1973-1974), followed by Denmark's Peer Carlsen (1974-1976). Alfred Misslin of France served as secretary from 1973 to 1975. The general secretary, secretaries, and staff operated out of at the International Trade Union House (ITUH) in Brussels. Although the ITUC was conceived as a multilingual organization, most of the secretaries and staff did not speak all of the official languages.

The establishment of the ETUC brought concerns among ICFTU members outside Europe that a separate trade union organization for Europe would lead to isolation of the European labor community. In what it saw as a crucial element in the development of European trade unionism, ETUC established 16 industry committees, organized by economic sector and open to all democratic trade unions in the EC nations. Although the ETUC wanted the committees to allow Christian and communist unions to join, this did not happen initially. The International Trade Secretariats (ITS) served a similar function as federations of national unions organized by particular industries or trades, but they were global in nature. The ITS worked closely with the ICFTU, which also grouped its members in regional organizations. One major barrier to coordination was that the ETUC expected the industry committees to be loyal to its European policy objectives. Attempts at formal alliances between the ETUC and the ICFTU failed, largely because of fears of diminished influence by the ITSs.

Although the ETUC's founding members all came from the ICFTU, the ETUC maintained an open recruitment policy. In addition to all of western Europe's social democratic unions, the ETUC accepted many organizations that represented more specialized interests. Its first expansion in May 1974 affiliated the 12 Christian trade unions linked to the World Confederation of Labour (WCL). The WCL European Organisation (WCLEO), which had been in existence since 1958, dissolved. In practice, affiliation of the Christian unions (despite their Christian-democrat leanings) was not complicated insofar as they shared the ETUC model and a commitment to European integration and pan-European unity of action. As ETUC general secretary Emilio Gabaglio later recalled, affiliating "Communist-leaning" trade unions was "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." One exception to this rule was Italy's Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL). The ETUC accepted the CGIL in July 1974, after it reduced its ties to the WFTU to the level of "associate" member. Over time, the ETUC accepted former communist trade unions—which were gradually distancing themselves from the USSR—and those without any international affiliations.

The ETUC expanded rapidly during its first 12 years, with the number of member confederations growing from 17 to 35, the number of represented countries from 15 to 20, and the number of workers represented from 36 to 41 million. Nonetheless, this expansion appeared to be at the cost of unity. The rapid incorporation of varied ideological currents and organizations working in diverse industrial realities made forging a common voice difficult, and ETUC worked constantly to find common ground among its affiliates. Alleged indifference toward European issues and "seemingly intractable disagreements" among member confederations "long undermined the ETUC's internal authority and external legitimacy." Gradually, the organization's diverse members grew toward political convergence and worked in concert toward the accomplishment of national objectives. In the end, the ETUC survived not as a traditional industrial trade union or "ideological standard-bearer," but as an effective political pressure group.

By the end of the century, ETUC grew to include more than 70 "free, independent and democratic" trade union confederations and European industry federations, representing more than 60 million members in more than 30 countries. It also introduced "observer status" and allowed full membership to several eastern European federations. Its differences with the ICFTU were resolved and the two organizations enjoyed a close working relationship. The ETUC, representing some 90 percent of Europe's unionized workers, became the only representative cross-sectional European trade union organization recognized by the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the EFTA. Nonetheless, despite growing unity of action at the supranational level, union power at the national level experienced gradual erosion, with the balance of power in the European Union remaining on the side of employers and policy-makers.

Key Players

Feather, Victor Grayson Hardie (1908-1976): Lord Feather was a British labor union leader. In 1969 he was appointed general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, which he led in confronting the government over industrial legislation. Feather was a founder of the ETUC and served as its first president from 1973 to 1974.

Rasschaert, Théo: Rasschaert, a Belgian, was first general secretary of the ETUC, serving from 1973 to 1975.

Schevenels, Walter (1894-1966): Schevenels, a Belgian trade union leader, served as general secretary of the European Regional Organisation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions from 1951 until his death in 1966. Although he would not live to see the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), he was a primary figure in the parent organization from which the ETUC descended.

See also: International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; World Federation of Trade Unions.



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Gobin, Corinne. "Taming the Unions: The Mirage of a Social Europe." Le Monde Diplomatique. November 1997 [cited 24 October 2002]. <>.

Hijma, Bouwe. "Inventory of the Archives of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and Its Predecessors (1939-) 1950-1992." International Institute of Social History [cited 24 October 2002]. <>.

International Labor Organization. "The Social Partners"[cited 24 October 2002]. <>.

Swedish Trade Union Confederation Web Site. "EU and the Trade Union." Focus Europe [cited 24 October 2002]. <>.

—Brett Allan King

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