In 1918, a handful of banking sector workers joined forces to defend their common interests. The First World War was nearing its end, and Luxembourg’s population faced an impoverished and uncertain future. At the time, Luxembourg maintained trading links with Germany via a customs union (Zollverein). One of Germany’s aims in the war was simply to annex Luxembourg.
Luxembourg’s fate had hitherto been determined by three international treaties (independence, loss of territory, neutrality) dating back to the 19th century (Vienna, 1815; London, 1815 and 1867). The economy was in a parlous state, with rampant inflation driving down purchasing power, and the extremely high cost of living, or even surviving, had created an uncertain social environment.
The normal working day was between 10 and 12 hours, six days a week. Working people began to unite and a labour movement became increasingly widespread, leading to the foundation of several trade unions. Private sector employees were represented by the Association Cantonale Générale des Employés Privés and the Fédération Nationale des Employés du Luxembourg. At the beginning of 1918 they merged with the Fédération Générale des Employés de l’Etat.
Back then, they had three main aims:
- combating the rising cost of living
- reducing the tax burden
- obtaining compensation for damage caused by wartime air raids
Later on in 1918, the Luxemburger Bankbeamtenverein, or Association Luxembourgeoise des Employés de Banque was founded, known as “ALEB”. All these private sector associations then merged into the Fédération des Employés Privés du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg. Social unrest due to the post-war economic crisis (1918-1924) led to the introduction of an 8-hour working day and the establishment of employee representative bodies within companies, as well as the creation of professional chambers. Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s economy had begun to stabilise, thanks to its modern and efficient steel industry. The opening of the Luxembourg stock market in 1927 was a major milestone for the country’s financial sector. In 1929, initial legislation governing holding companies was put in place. The former ALEB’s death benefit fund was established on 20 October 1928. The articles of association of the death benefit fund were filed under the name of Sterbekasse des Luxemburger Bankbeamtenvereins and published in the Mémorial (Luxembourg official gazette).
The 1930s were marked by the global economic crisis triggered by the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Subsequently, in the lead-up to the Second World War, came the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the imposition of a military dictatorship and a ban on trade unions. After the Second World War, the steel industry resumed its role as the engine of economic growth until the steel crisis in 1975. Fortunately, thanks to the vision of its political leaders, Luxembourg was able to reinvent its economy through its financial sector. Banking secrecy and the tax environment kept economic disruption to a minimum. From this point on, financial services were developed and promoted on a grand scale.
Back in 1955, the first year for which figures are available, there were 996 bank employees, while 224 employees worked in insurance. By 1967, the financial sector had 2,400 employees, rising to 7,600 in 1980 and 15,500 in 1990. Since then, this number has doubled again. The first collective employment agreements for bank and insurance sector workers were signed on 3 May 1967 and 17 May 1967 respectively. Both were signed by the Fédération des Employés Privés (FEP), which was the trade union for all private sector employees at that time (business, steel, banking and insurance).
The 1970s changed the landscape for the union movement, as steel industry restructuring resulted in significant job losses and a sharp reduction in membership for the traditional trade unions. The idea of a single union was mooted, but never materialised due to a lack of common ground. In 1978, ALEBA broke away from FEP and established itself as an independent trade union.
In 1979, FLA and LAV joined forces with dissident leaders of FEP to form OGB-L. Thus, apart from a marriage of convenience between ALEBA and FEP stalwarts, the private sector trade unions suffered upheaval and division. The disappearance of FEP was just a matter of time. Meanwhile, ALEBA stuck quietly to its guns, and played a leading role in securing improved employment conditions following a series of victories in financial sector employee representative elections. Nowadays, the financial sector is a beacon for other industries in terms of employment status, through its negotiated rights and additional employee benefits across the various companies. It has to be said that after it split from FEP, ALEBA faced some tough challenges. Everyone who played a part in building ALEBA has reason to be proud. Today, ALEBA is a mature, autonomous and representative organisation.
For Luxembourg’s financial sector and economy, it is reassuring to know that ALEBA can fulfil its responsibilities in full independence. This was also the case in December 2007, when it had to take a crucial decision over the survival of the collective agreement for the banking sector.
The steady growth in membership, which has risen to 10,000, is evidence of its effective and recognised union activities.