A controversial European Economic Community measure which effectively would alter the ground rules for international capitalism is arousing "unprecedented attention" and "outright opposition" from American companies both throughout Western Europe and at corporate headquarters in the United States, according to business officials contacted here.
The proposed measure seeks to give union representatives in multinationals operating in Europe advance consultation rights on strategic company decisions. The EEC initiative was made late last year, and it soon will be examined by the European Parliament and member governments of the 10-nation European Community.
The U.S. corporate establishment is showing "phenomenal" interest in the proposal, according to American business representatives based in Europe. One indication of this interest is a top-level meeting to be held in Washington Feb. 18 by leading American business organizations, including the National Foreign Trade Council. According to informed sources, the aim of the meeting is to formulate a counteroffensive against the EEC move, focussing lobbying particularly on European governments and the EEC's Executive Commission, possibly through the U.S. State Department.
According to American business representatives in Brussels, two particularly "odious" aspects of the EEC proposals would be "to strip international management of its decision-making powers" and "to take a first step towards international collective bargaining" with organized labor. The prospect of transnational union bargaining power has haunted the multinational business world ever since international bodies such as the EEC and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in its code on multinational enterprises adopted in 1976, have begun setting new standards for employe-management relations.
Acute U.S. business antagonism to the EEC initiative, shared in large part by European industry, is fully matched and partially explained by the equally outspoken support given it by the politically influential European Trade Union Confederation based here.
The ETUC, a socialist organization bringing together such powerful bodies as Britain's Trades Union Congress and West Germany's main labor grouping, the German Trade Union Federation, sees the move as an "acid test" of European politicians' readiness to give the EEC a real meaning for workers in addition to a common market for big business. Business, meanwhile, sees the proposal as forcing companies to divulge sensitive information, not simply to the local European work force of multinationals' European subsidiaries, but to trade unions which are seen as major political opponents.
"How much information can a manager be expected to give to the leaders of Communist-controlled labor organizations?" asked one U.S. business official here in an allusion to the impact of the proposals, once enacted, in Italy. "He's not going to give confidential information to people who are just as likely to slip it off to Moscow as to the local employes," he claimed. j
The depth of feeling sparked by the proposal, termed the Vredeling Initiative after the Dutch socialist politician who wrote it, contrasts sharply with the normal plodding rhythm of EEC political life. A no-holds-barred lobbying battle between international business and European organized labor is being ferociously fought on a scale unparalleled in the community's history, according to well-placed observers here.
"It is the only EEC issue that has ever really struck at the heart of American corporate interests," commented an official here, who stressed that the root conflict is that between traditionally accepted views of capitalism and a new brand of European industrial democracy as much responsive to the employes as to the stockholder.
The bitterness of the union-business feuding over the Common Market move reflects growing awareness both of emerging European policy on multinationals and of its broader international impact. Similar battles are being sought in Paris, where European unions are pushing for tougher application of the OECD's code on multinationals, and in New York, where negotiations for a United Nations code of conduct for transnational corporations are reaching a crucial phase.