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Transnational Coordination

The transnational coordination of contestation emerged in the 1990s mainly—albeit not exclusively—at the sectoral level. The liberalization of rail passenger and freight transport offers a good example of the dynamics of contention as well as the significant obstacles it meets at both the ideological and organizational level. According to Hilal, three distinct stages of mobilization in the railway sector can be identified (Hilal 2009). When the first railway package was adopted in 1991, a gap among trade unions appeared which—roughly speaking—overlapped North-South differences in terms of conception of the State, public services and industrial relations. Whereas German and Nordic trade unions engaged with the reform processes in order to negotiate the best conditions for workers, unions in France and southern Europe attempted to resist marketization through adversarial strategies and conflict. In countries where national governments had already undertaken liberalization and privatization, such as the UK or the Netherlands, the new EU legislation was not perceived as a threat. During a second phase from 1996 to 2004, transnational coordination started to be seen as a response to the negative impact of liberalization policies which had become more visible in many EU countries. Unions in Scandinavia and Germany realized that the hardly negotiated compromises with their respective governments were called into question as new steps towards liberalization and deregulation were decided at the EU level. The European Transport Federation (ETF) was pivotal in developing transnational mobilization networks but also direct links with representatives within the EU institutions. As Hilal reports, unions

experimented numerous forms of action: two marches in Brussels in 1996 and 1998, one euro-strike in 1998, a “train of cooperation and solidarity” from Brussels to Turin in 2001 and then transnational demonstrations in railway stations from this date, coupled with a gathering in Lille in 2004, where the coming European Railway Agency was to be established, and a gathering in front of the European Parliament in Strasburg in 2005. (2009, p. 64)

Since the mid-2000s, however, the railway sector has witnessed a third stage where the unions have reverted to national strategies in order to manage the consequences of marketization. This perhaps resulted from the observation that the effects of contestation on policy making at the EU level seemed very limited. Unlike the transport sector, other liberalized public utilities sectors do not have a dedicated European federation which coordinates transnational action. The EPSU is the Brussels platform for all welfare services. It engages more with advocacy campaigns than protest and adversarial industrial action. Its priorities include the monitoring of European works councils in welfare services companies, anti-tax fraud, the impact of international trade agreements or the right to water.

Alongside unions’ activities, broader left-wing networks focused on welfare services have also emerged over the past decade. In the aftermath of the protest against the EU Services Directive (examined in detail in the following section of this chapter), a European network for public services was set up at the 2006 European Social Forum (ESF) in Athens. The network was composed of about 30 NGOs, unions and political groups from Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the UK (Strickner 2008, p. 363). The network’s common statement ‘Another Europe with public services for all’ claims that the participating organizations assert their

commitment against the principle of neo-liberalism and therefore to open a new step of struggle with the aim of deciding at both European and national level the cultural, social, political and institutional conditions for the definition and the regulation of services designated to guarantee universal access to fundamental rights, entrusted by public authority and administration, and free from any consideration of liberalization, privatisation and harnessing by private funds.[1]

Participating organizations also committed themselves to creating a national coordination for public services in their respective country. In France, a network of committees for the defence and the development of welfare services emerged between 2005 and 2007 that counts about 22 regional groups. A national platform for the defence of public services still exists, but it is unclear whether it is connected to the European network. It is difficult to find evidence that the European network for public services has emulated at the local level elsewhere in Europe. The network had sustained activity in its early days with a meeting in Brussels in 2007 and at the Malmo ESF in 2008, where mobilization and the search for alternatives were redirected more specifically towards the defence of public water distribution (Strickner 2008, p. 369). There is no evidence of further activity of the European network for public services as such after one last meeting in 2010 in Berlin.

In conclusion, the climax of transnational contestation of EU policies and their effects seems to have now passed. As pointed out by Hermann et al. (Hermann et al. 2012, pp. 154-156), the declining representativeness and legitimacy of industrial action in the narrow sense has often been politically exploited by the proponents of marketization. In the realm of welfare services, the decrease of union membership has accelerated as a result of privatization and outsourcing. The fragmentation of the workforce has therefore left traditional contentious actors weaker from both an organizational and a political point of view. Besides transnational coordination on a European scale, an additional strategic response from the unions has been to engage at the local and national level and open to partners within civil society (NGOs, associations) that had been key in transnational coordination (see Chap. 3, Sect. 2).

  • [1] European Social Forum, ‘Another Europe with public services for all’, available at,date accessed 11 May 2015.
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