unions and productivism + THREE questions to unions

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At the end of the Second World War, representatives of employers and workers concluded a pact that had been in the making for several decades. After the industrial revolution, which had considerably hardened the conditions of workers’ work, and after the Russian revolution of 1917, which had made the Western elites tremble, the way was opened for a compromise between the supporters of capital on the one hand and those who sell their labor power on the other. Under the aegis of the state, the representatives of these two parties with divergent interests have agreed on the desire to produce economic growth.

The social-democratic pact for economic growth

Growth was supposed to guarantee a continuous increase in profit for the capitalists and wages and benefits for the workers. And progress for all. In order to guarantee social peace, it was therefore decided to distribute the fruits of growth, which became the heart, the alpha and the omega of the « social-democratic pact.

The assessment of this pact, from which we have largely benefited, has yet to be made. But it is history that makes the assessments.

In the meantime, there is a problem: today, economic growth has seriously faded, and has probably even disappeared from our over-industrialized countries. The media-political tsunami may call relentlessly for a return to growth through stimulus, but it has no effect on GDP, which is stagnating or even falling. How can we further increase the size of our already hypertrophied economies when liberalization, carried like a mantra, puts our workers in competition with those of giant countries where employment conditions are a modern slavery? Of course, in this little game, which in reality has absolutely nothing to do with games, the bosses prefer to pay less and relocate. Local GDP suffers. And how can we increase the size of our bulimic economies when the natural resources from which consumer « goods » are made are increasingly scarce, and therefore increasingly expensive? Remember that a barrel of oil is worth almost 5 times more today than it was 10 years ago(1). Inevitably, the economic machine slows down. Try to get it going again, crude oil consumption goes back up, and prices with it. The recession is back. In short, goodbye to infinite growth.

End of growth, end of social peace? 

If growth disappears, on what can the social pact that depended on it still be based? And what will become of the social peace that this pact sealed? At the time of writing, we learn that Ford in Genk, Duferco-NLMK in Liège and Philips in Turnhout will close. In total, 11,000 jobs will probably disappear, and probably almost as many families will be pushed into an insecurity from which it is seriously doubtful that the « labor market » will allow them to get out, and while the dependence of individuals on this market has never been so great. In October, 1200 companies went bankrupt in Belgium(2), which seems to be unheard of. Meanwhile, the government of the social democrat Mr. Di Rupo is preparing a new austerity package, and since growth is less strong than expected, the train will be longer than announced. The old building is no longer standing. Or to put it synthetically like Jean Ziegler: « The Socialist International is a rotting corpse. »(3)

Unions on the front line

The unions are on the front line. First, because historically they have concluded the social democratic pact. Secondly, because they have maintained it since then(4), in negotiations where they have most often had to fight foot to foot to slow down the progress of the employers’ demands, to try to obtain a larger « slice » of the cake, and rights for the employees. Moreover, because they are also workers’ organizations, and the workers are paying for the crisis that is the crisis of productivism, of laborism, of the illusion of an infinite economic growth, which is always done for the benefit of a minority and to the detriment of the greatest number. Finally, because, as we can see in southern Europe in particular, the unions are often the only organizations capable of organizing massive and long social mobilizations.

How do the unions position themselves in relation to this crisis? How do they envision their future action? What directions will they choose to continue to defend their members, between ecological and social constraints? Where is the debate on productivism and growth as a solution or a problem? We(5) asked them the following three questions — which we also ask ourselves.

Three Questions for Unions

A) According to Kenneth Boulding (1910- 1993), president of the American Economic Association: « Anyone who believes that growth can be infinite in a finite world is either a fool or an economist. » How does your organization position itself with respect to growth and this objection?

B) Given that the unsustainability of our materialistic lifestyles has been well documented, do you think it is only necessary to share the fruits of production more widely, or is it also necessary to reduce production? If not, how can we make our societies sustainable? If so, how can we avoid a « social bloodbath »?

C) Do you think that the historical social democratic compromise between capital and workers can survive the current crisis? How do you see the role of unions in the years to come?

Five observations

From the answers that you will find below, each formulation of which must be weighed, we draw five summary observations, keeping in mind that we are here in the register of words and not acts(6):

1. The trade unions have been reflecting on the problems linked to infinite growth and most of them now agree, in various terms, that it is not possible to continue on that path. Some lean toward « green » or « sustainable » growth without saying how they might produce it, and three (CNE, MAP, and FUGEA) see a stationary economy as a preferable or inevitable goal. It seems to us that a few years ago, these observations would have been unthinkable.

2. This questioning of growth does not seem clearly linked to the need to organize the de-growth of the ecological footprint(7) of our countries, or to put it another way, to organize the drastic reduction of the flow of matter and energy that goes through the industrial process, or to put it another way, to strongly reduce the size of our economies, or to adopt a formulation of J. Grinevald, to quickly organize the de-escalation of industrial power (since it is our industrial power that exhausts the Earth in a cycle that transforms natural resources into waste).

3. This second observation leads to a corollary: the critics of growth and its avatars « green » or « sustainable » growth are insufficiently known.

4. This is not new; there are significant differences in approach between workers’ and employees’ unions and farmers’ unions. This is due to the fact that farmers are independent, but not only. History as seen by farmers has been cruel, especially for the « small » farmers who have disappeared and continue to disappear at an alarming rate, yielding to the pressure of the megamachine (a giant industrial machine, running on fossil fuels, for capitalist profit, with the help of globalized institutions such as the WTO or the European Commission). As farmers feed us, thanks to the Earth, their economic and ecological vulnerability is therefore particular, and particularly worrying.

5. Unions are looking at the future of their action in different ways. While it is of course not possible to present a turnkey action plan in a context that evolves daily, one might expect the presentation of positions that anticipate visible tensions, known constraints, and assert feasible orientations. All trade unions must defend their members. But how will they do this when they are all seeing a deterioration in working conditions? It is clear that the current way of doing things does not allow us to change in a better direction the slope known for several decades. So what, what reorientations, what strategic changes, what steps from which sides? Between « just transition », responsible dialogue, reduction of working time, construction of new models of society, the perspectives are sometimes divergent and we sense that the ways of adapting to the situation will be very different. Which organizations will be able to install effective countermeasures to the even more savage and devastating capitalism that is advancing before our eyes?

After the responses of the unions, you will read a critical analysis of the union struggle in a crescentist environment and an insight into the productivist turn of the anarcho-syndicalists in Spain in the 1930s.

Two texts to put into perspective the issues and tensions of today, which we hope will be read as invitations to debate in all directions.




Notes et références
  1. Baril de Brent en dollars : 24.44 en 2002, 111,22 en 2011. Source : http://www.developpement-durable. gouv.fr/Historique-du-cours-du-Brent-date.html
  2. Etude du bureau d’étude Graydon.be
  3. Le Vif, 10 février 2012
  4. Ils signent en 1944 « Un projet d’accord de solidarité sociale » (1944) dans lequel on peut lire : « Le but de l’activité économique est d’améliorer sans cesse les conditions d’existence de la population. Représentants des employeurs et représentants des travailleurs rechercheront donc, en toutes circonstances, les moyens de donner aux salariés le maximum de pouvoir d’achat compatible avec ces circonstances et à le hausser parallèlement aux progrès des techniques’’ de production et d’échange. » Le volet productiviste s’affirme dans « LA DECLARATION COMMUNE SUR LA PRODUCTIVITE » de 1954 révisée en 1959 où l’on peut par exemple lire : « Avant la révolution industrielle du XVIIIe siècle, les grands de ce monde connaissaient moins de confort et d’hygiène que l’ouvrier de nos jours. C’est parce que nous avons appris à produire avec moins d’efforts, plus de biens et des biens plus variés. Notre productivité s’est constamment accrue. Accroître la productivité n’est donc pas une idée neuve; c’est une tendance permanente de l’homme». Voir les documents sur: http://www.ccecrb.fgov.be/
  5. Nous avons également contacté les syndicats agricoles : si le pacte social-démocrate les concerne moins directement (leur rôle historique a été différent des syndicats ouvriers et employés, et leurs affiliés sont le plus souvent des indépendants qui ne béné- ficient pas des mêmes avantages liés aux salaires que les affiliés des autres organisations), le productivisme et sa crise les concerne tout à fait. A l’exception de la Confédération Nationale des Cadres, toutes les organisations contactées ont répondu, nous les en remercions. Les réponses sont reproduites intégralement.
  6. Observations sommaires puisque les organisations répondantes n’ont disposé que d’un espace de réponse limité, et puisqu’il s’agit ici de débat, et que le débat, par nature, évolue.
  7. La croissance du PIB implique la croissance de l’empreinte écologique, de l’utilisation des ressources naturelles et des pollutions. C’est bien sur cette dernière dimension qu’il faut axer la nécessaire décroissance, et pas le PIB qui est un indicateur problématique et dépassé. De manière générale, les théoriciens de « la décroissance » (dont Georgescu-Roegen) ne parlent pas de la décroissance du PIB mais bien des flux de matière et d’énergie dans le système économique. La décroissance du PIB peut être une conséquence de la décroissance de l’empreinte écologique, sans qu’il n’y ait de corrélation mécanique et immédiate entre les deux. L’empreinte écologique est une mesure pédagogique de la quantité de terre et d’océan nécessaire pour la production de nos biens et services de consommation et pour le retraitement des pollutions, notamment du gaz carbonique émis. L’empreinte écologique indique que si tout le monde consommait comme nous en Belgique, les ressources de trois planètes ne suffiraient pas à la demande mondiale.
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