Archeology of the US

Archeology of the US

Agora #88
Pages 4 - 7

Union Syndicale Service Public Européen – Bruxelles (USB) was founded on Thursday, 25 January 1973 at a constituent general meeting of members of the SGPOE – Bruxelles regroupement...

A brief history

Union Syndicale Service Public Européen – Bruxelles (USB) was founded on Thursday, 25 January 1973 at a constituent general meeting of members of the SGPOE – Bruxelles regroupement [1] and the SGPOI – unifié [2]. The meeting, convened at 2.30 p.m., was attended by more than 600 members in the 2nd basement restaurant of the Berlaymont building. It was chaired by the Secretary General of the Belgian General Public Services Union (CGSP).

50 years ago, the USB was born in a context of European enlargement, with the Cold War in the background, which polarised social conflicts and fragmented the international trade union movement.


[1] Syndicat Général du Personnel des Organismes Européens

[2] Syndicat Général du Personnel des Organismes internationaux

The enlargement of Europe

At the end of the 1960s, the Member States of the Communities (EEC, ECSC, and EAEC/Euratom) were hit by disorders that undermined the functioning of the common market. In order to avoid divergences caused by national political responses, the Six agreed on a step-by-step plan for the creation of a European economic and monetary union.

During the 1960s, the British reoriented their foreign policy towards an increasingly prosperous continental Europe, whereas in the previous decade they had avoided all attempts at European integration that might challenge their sovereignty, their links with their former empire and their privileged relationship with the USA. After two refusals by France, in 1961 and 1967, which feared a weakening of the EEC, the United Kingdom finally had access to the common market. Following the Accession Treaty, signed on 22 January 1971, it was officially admitted on 1 January 1973, along with Ireland and Denmark (see Historical events in the construction of Europe (1945-2014) on the research infrastructure of the University of Luxembourg ).

The institutions as architectures of integration

In the process of building a European Union, the intellectual and ideological dimension plays an important role, but its concrete expressions are even more important because they are what make it a reality. Among its many expressions: the European institutions, the true architecture of European integration. They are the social forms and structures related to Europe. These will take a specific form since they are necessarily international organisations.

The expansion of the European civil service

To facilitate the economic expansion of the Community, the Treaty of Rome (1957) established a European Investment Bank. It also provides for the association of the overseas countries and territories, i.e. the French, Italian, Dutch and Belgian colonies, with a view to “increasing trade and pursuing joint economic and social development”. To achieve these tasks, the Treaty establishes a European Parliament, a Council, a Commission and a Court of Justice. All of these institutions had to be staffed with personnel assigned to their operation: in the early 1970s, the number of staff rose to almost 10,000 officials and agents.

Cold War and changes in the trade union movement

The years 1968-1974 saw a very strong increase in strikes compared to previous years. The revival of activism was accompanied by a change in the distribution of power within the unions. Indeed, the increase in the influence of the rank and file reduced the power of the trade union apparatuses at the same time as the stakes and strategies of the conflicts were increasingly defined at the workplace level.

From the ICFTU to the ETUC

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, the international trade union movement became polarised, following the logic of the Cold War, which was to intensify progressively. In 1949, under the impetus of the American trade union centre AFL-CIO, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) was created, which at the time brought together trade union organisations from 53 countries and claimed to represent almost 48 million organised workers. The Acts of the Congress named “Soviet totalitarianism” as the “priority enemy”, but a social-democratic minority, mainly from European countries, succeeded in having the final resolution include the condemnation of all dictatorships and the idea that the market should not be the only engine of development.

Dominated by the strategy of containment that aimed to systematically develop opposition to the communist unions or to those in danger of siding with them, the ICFTU supported European integration by setting up an ECSC coordination committee. In 1957, it set up a European Trade Union Secretariat (ETU) through which it pushed its organisations to participate in the process that led to the creation of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). It then created regional organisations to organise strikes as close to the front line as possible; to increase its action significantly, the ICFTU generally relied on the professional trade union federations.

Social conflicts in the European institutions

In the context of the first enlargement of Europe and the development of the institutions as a result of the Treaty of Rome, the number of officials and other staff grew to almost 10 000 in the early 1970s. The staff of the institutions rallied. Calls for negotiations on the salaries of local staff, the fight against discrimination against female staff, the expatriation allowance and, above all, the recognition of trade union rights, became increasingly frequent.

The unification process

From 27 August 1971, Public Services International (PSI), an international union federation affiliated to the ICFTU, organised a series of meetings with representatives of the staff unions working in the institutions based in Brussels and Luxembourg[1]. The clear objective is to create a federative structure with political allegiance to PSI and the ICFTU.

The PSI General Secretary (Carl W. Franken) chaired the six meetings held between August 1971 and November 1972. The result of this discussion and coordination was a very detailed six-point memorandum of understanding. PSI’s intention was to make the construction of the union a model of trade union unification. This is the meaning of the introductory statement of the Unification General Assembly. The first articles of the USB Rules bear the mark of these affiliations from the very outset.

Moreover, the unions already agree to extend the unification process to all the unions of the institutions of the European Communities with a view to “re-establishing a federal structure”. They also agreed to extend contacts to the trade unions of other international organisations in Europe claiming to be free trade unionists (i.e. anti-communist and social democratic) with a view to creating a federal structure. This will lead to the creation, in 1974, of the Federation called Union des Syndicats.


[1] From Brussels : SGPOI – unifié, founded in 1969 and SGPOE – regroupement, founded in 1959 and from Luxembourg SGPOE – Luxembourg.

Conception and general orientation of trade union action & Trade union life

In December 1972, the executives of the two Brussels organisations each organised a general meeting inviting members to join the constituent GM of the USB to be held in the fourth week of January 1973. The leaflets sent to members urged them to commit themselves to the unification and to come and vote.

On the agenda:

Wage and social policy
The new union would have to tackle the problems of wage and social policy: salaries, social security, the fight against discrimination, social action. A framework programme was submitted to the constituent General Meeting.

Concept of the European civil service (Staff Regulations)
This part of the MoU is devoted to the defence of the interests of staff, extended to the concept of the European civil service. It is not the sum of the demands made by staff within the institutions, but the protocol defines a set of general objectives for this purpose, bearing in mind the need to ensure the independence, permanence and quality of the European civil service.

In a Europe at a pivotal moment in its construction, the question of the balance of nationalities arises. Trade union policy must strive to tackle discrimination on the basis of nationality. At that time, there was a tendency to implicitly consider civil servants as the agents of the interests of their country of origin. On the other hand, the Member States were very interested in securing positions of power in the European institutions at various levels of the hierarchy.

Resources of the organisation
The new union claims more than 2 200 members (officials and agents); almost a third of the total number of staff in the European institutions and bodies in Brussels at the time.

The institutions represented were: Commission, Council, Economic and Social Committee, Eurocontrol, Parliament).

Roger Van Campenhout pushed for the adoption of the first solidarity scale of contributions according to basic salary: from 30 BF for a member with a basic salary of 12,000 BF to 250 BF for a basic salary of over 250,000 BF. He called on the GM for “a strong membership fee to ensure an ambitious work programme”, namely

  • A trade union information and training programme for trade union  representatives, mandated workers and leaders.
  • A package of services for members: legal assistance, a mutual aid fund, a professional training programme for career development, a strike fund, a programme to welcome new civil servants and agents.
  • Maintaining and developing relations with PSI/ICFTU affiliated unions in international organisations and other workplaces, as well as with national confederations and unions.

As the whole programme generates increased operating costs, the resources required are estimated at 2 million BF per year

1973-2023: the same old fights?

Thus, from the outset, USB set up the structures and resources that would enable it to influence negotiations, both within each institution and at the inter-institutional level. Under the guidance of PSI and the Belgian federation of public services, the union continued to work for the unification of the trade union movement in the European and international institutions and bodies.

The story of its creation is not, however, a straightforward one. A group of trade unionists, mainly local staff and B, C and D grade officials, who were poorly represented in the new executive [1], reacted by regretting the stranglehold of the top grades on the running of the new union. They also considered the monthly fees “unnecessarily high”. Wherever the administration encourages union fragmentation and division, the USB develops solidarity, while others advocate category-based union action.

True to its founding principles, USB has maintained and developed all of its affiliations and its entire membership support programme, including the strike fund, which has been mobilised on several occasions during the five decades of inter-institutional social conflicts in which the union has been involved in the defence of staff.

But the fire is still smouldering, as is the threat of a new reform of the European Civil Service Staff Regulations. Some fights are still going on, such as the building of trade union unity or the recognition of trade unions, particularly in the EU agencies. Union Syndicale is still fighting this 50-year-old battle…

[1] 13 cat. A, 2 cat. B, 3 cat C and 1 cat. D

Bibliographie sélective

  • Bossuat, G. (2002). Histoire de l’unité européenne et avenir de l’Union. Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps65(1), 91–97.
  • Degryse, C. (2011). Dictionnaire de l’Union européenne : Politiques, institutions, programmes(4e éd.). De Boeck Université.
  • Pernot, J.-M. (s. d.). Engagements internationaux dans la guerre froide. Dans La CGT dans les années 1950(p. 435–447). Presses universitaires de Rennes.
  • Orsini, A. (2014). The european union with international organisations : Commitment, consistency and effects across time.
  • Renout, H. (2009). Institutions européennes. Paradigme CPU.
  • Van der Linden, M. (2006). 5. Syndicalismes et « nouveaux » mouvements sociaux autour de 1968. Dans L’apogée des syndicalismes en Europe occidentale(p. 139–166). Éditions de la Sorbonne.
  • Visser, J. (1989). European trade unions in figures. Kluwer Law and Taxation Publishers.

Emmanuel Wietzel

About the Author

Teacher, trade union trainer at the french Confédération Générale du Travail and Euro.trainer of the ToT network of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), former head of the Asia-Pacific sector of the UGICT-CGT international team, great supporter of public service and social dialogue, passionate about European construction and the history of the international trade union movement. Managing Director of Union Syndicale since 2017.

I would like to warmly thank Ms Agnès Brouet, from the European University Institute in Florence, who gave me access to many of the Institute’s archives shedding light on the creation of European trade unions (in particular USB and ETUC).