Mobilizing against unemployment: Unions, the unemployed and a precarious balance of interests

August 14, 2006

Does no job mean no clout when it comes to public policy, and can unions build a voice for the unemployed? A University of Cincinnati researcher takes a look at what happened when unemployment reached crisis proportions across Western Europe. Annulla Linders, UC associate professor of sociology, will present her paper, "Mobilizing Against Unemployment: Unions and the Unemployed in Europe, 1995-2002" from 4:30-6:10 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14, at the 101st annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montreal, Canada.

Linders writes that historically, unions have enabled the working class to stand up against workplace oppression, either with the threat of a strike or through institutionalized bargaining. Her research to be presented at the ASA meeting focused specifically on the extent to which unions effectively serve as allies of the unemployed, which she describes as a highly vulnerable group with few financial and organizational resources.

The study examined the 1990s unemployment crisis that prompted protests across much of Western Europe. The data came from previous literature focusing on the relationship between unions and the unemployed, as well as a larger project sponsored by the European Commission, titled, "The Contentious Politics of Unemployment in Europe," which covered the periods of 1995-2002 and focused on six European nations: France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Linders contributed research from Sweden as part of the larger project.

It was a time when much of Europe, including the six nations studied, saw sharp increases in the unemployment rate. In voicing what should be done to reverse the unemployment trend, the unemployed were responsible for less than one percent of all claims (defined as political decision, verbal statement or protest actions) and in no nation exceeded more than three percent. State governments led all claims (37.8 percent) in the total sample, followed by employers (20.6 percent) and labor organizations (16.5 percent).

In all of the nations, there were some small efforts by the unemployed to mobilize independently. Furthermore, Linders found that unions in all nations worked directly with the unemployed to provide service and political action - support that in many cases led to mobilization of the unemployed.

Linders says the study found tentative evidence suggesting that unions were better at protecting the interests of the unemployed over other groups that participated in attempting to resolve the unemployment crisis across Europe, because they generally discussed the unemployed favorably, often supported the side of the unemployed in public debate and were somewhat ready to engage in protest on behalf of the unemployed. However, Linders also found that unions typically didn't pursue the same issues as the unemployed - the leading interest of the unions focused on socio-economic matters while the unemployed placed top emphasis on welfare and social benefits. Linders says issues concerning the socio-economic status of the labor market dominated the debate in all nations struggling with rising unemployment.

Also, while findings from case studies suggested that protest campaigns by the unemployed can give them advantages, such as policy victories in Switzerland, official recognition as negotiating partners in France and media attention in Sweden, the data did not offer any clear evidence that generally speaking, the unemployed are better served acting independently than when they are represented by unions.
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University of Cincinnati

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