Industrial relations in the social model of the consensus-based Western European countries are based heavily on the concept of social partnership between the workers (represented by the trade unions) and employers (represented by employers' federations). They are brought together through formal and informal channels to negotiate collective labour contracts at various levels (often on an industry-wide basis) which are frequently recognised as having legal standing) and to beat out acceptable compromise positions on various issues. As the traditional industrial model of employment has broken down, other organisations from within civil society have tended to be included in such deliberations, such as bodies representing various groupings excluded from the boss/employee equation. The legislation of the EU and most states of Western Europe is liberally scattered with references to "the social partners" in this way.

At EU level the main bodies concerned are the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), a confederation of national trade union federations which also brings together Europe-wide federations of unions in particular industries, and UNICE, the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe, with similar structures, representing private sector employers; public sector employers get a voice through the CEEP (which stands, transparently enough, for "European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest"). Representatives of these comprise two-thirds of the European Economic and Social Committee, a largely ignored institution set up under the various EC Treaties whose formal opinion has to be sought (but can subsequently be rejected out of hand) on the majority of proposed EU legislation; the other third are composed of "various interests" - representatives of pensioners, farmers, the professions and anybody else who doesn't fit in anywhere else; the Committee's members are appointed by national governments, generally on the advice of the national employers' bodies and union federations. This structure follows the model of the Economic and Social Councils of various European countries. However, most of the more important EU-level interaction between the traditional social partners takes place in the European Commission's social dialogue committee (the "Val Duchesse process" after the Brussels chateau where it was negotiated) and various specialist advisory committees.

In the UK, hamstrung by its traditionally adversarial approach to public affairs, not to say mutual loathing and intransigence on both sides, dialogue between the two sides of industry was a matter of union demands and management refusals; throughout the post-war years partnership was not sought or even deemed worthy of consideration, particularly on the union side where the unions of France and Germany were considered basically as just being the lapdogs of management; the fact that by the 1970s workers for Mercedes were doing a great deal better for themselves than those working for British Leyland (as well as producing better cars for a company that made a profit) was a mere side-issue. The last serious attempt to establish a British system on the European model, Barbara Castle's 1970 White Paper In Place of Strife, was rejected out of hand by the unions and the majority of Labour supporters, leaving an increasingly aggressive and unrealistic trade union movement to disappear up its own arse in a series of counterproductive strikes, finally bringing down the Labour government in 1979 and ushering in 23 years of conservative rule and the effective destruction of the trade unions as a significant player in British politics.

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