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International Handbook of Trade Unions

Edited by John T. Addison and Claus Schnabel

This Handbook is an authoritative and invaluable reference tool, uniquely analysing the forces governing unionism, union behaviour and union impact from a variety of perspectives, both theoretical and empirical. The 14 chapters are written in an accessible style by acknowledged leading specialists from the fields of economics and industrial relations. They offer a truly international perspective on this important subject.
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Chapter 10: Trade Unions as Political Actors

Wolfgang Streeck and Anke Hassel


Wolfgang Streeck and Anke Hassel 1. Introduction Modern trade unions act in two arenas: the state and politics on the one hand, and the labour market and collective bargaining on the other. The relative importance of their economic and political activities differs between countries and world regions, as well as historically and between types of unions. So do the way and the extent to which union action in the two arenas is coordinated. The dominant kind of trade union as it emerged from the second postwar settlement after 1945 recognizes the primacy of the liberal-democratic state and of parliamentary democracy, just as it accepts private property and the principal rules of a – socially embedded and regulated – market economy. Most unions after 1945 no longer claimed a right or reserved the option to overthrow the government of the state through a political strike. In this they paid tribute to the superior legitimacy of free elections, as compared to ‘direct action’ of the organized working class. Today more or less explicit constitutional law makes it illegal for unions in most liberal democracies to call a strike in order to put pressure on the elected parliament, and most trade unions have accepted this as legitimate. In return liberal democratic states allow unions – within the limits of usually complex legal rules – to strike in the context of disputes with employers and in pursuit of collective agreements on wages and working conditions. In the nineteenth century, syndicalist traditions of the trade union movement aimed...

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