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Make solidarity permanent to create a fairer Europe

LUCA VISENTINI believes recent legal gains by trade unions in various EU countries point to the potential for collective struggle that must not go to waste

THE value of solidarity has never been so clear to so many people.

It has been clear simply in the way we have worn masks to protect others, it has been clear in the way workers put themselves at risk to keep essential services running and it’s been clear in the way trade unions won unprecedented support to save jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic. 

In these difficult times, we have depended on one another. The enduring message of the labour movement has never been so powerful as in the circumstances we are marking May Day this year. 

By contrast, the neoliberal ideas which have dominated European politics in recent decades have been discredited. 

Public health services were underfunded when we needed them most, conservative politicians have become “supporters” of state intervention and people can see in their everyday lives the limits to individualism in the face of a common challenge.  

But we cannot let this solidarity across society slowly fade away like the claps for carers. We cannot return to business as usual. The last decade was a lost decade because of austerity.  

Europe’s leaders pursued spending cuts which they knew would create mass unemployment. 

When employment recovered, attacks on collective bargaining meant the new jobs were lower paid and more precarious. 

The result is that workers in many EU countries are now earning less now than they were a decade ago and there has been a significant increase in the number of people living in poverty despite being in work. On top of that, cuts to welfare systems meant that the victims of austerity often fell through gaps in the social safety net, which were unprepared for the pandemic. 

Even the principal architects and cheerleaders of these policies have accepted they were a disaster. The IMF says they do more harm than good and the Financial Times has said the “death of austerity should not be mourned.”

The contrast in the response to the financial crisis and Covid-19 could not be greater. Under pressure from trade unions and many others, the EU and national governments poured resources into emergency job and income support measures. The EU’s restrictive fiscal rules have been paused to allow member states to invest in fighting the health and employment impacts of Covid-19 and in economic recovery. 

The battle is already on to turn temporary job and wage protection measures into a permanent shift in the interests of working people. To make solidarity permanent. To create a fairer Europe. To ensure a socially just transition to a carbon neutral and digital economy. 

We have already witnessed Europe’s first general strike in Belgium where workers are being offered only a 0.4 per cent pay rise at a time when the country’s biggest companies are increasing payouts to shareholders.

In Italy, 600,000 cleaners, the majority of them women, walked out to demand essential wages to match their essential work. In Spain and the UK, unions have taken on Deliveroo and Uber in the courts and won historic victories for more secure employment.  Unions have also made progress against precarious platform work in Italy, with unprecedented success in collective bargaining for platform workers. 

Unions are also involved in a landmark legal battle to uphold the right to organise in France, where activists were spied on in a sinister union-busting operation that allegedly involved police collusion with private security hired by IKEA. 

In Germany, unions have won “Covid bonus” payments for workers covered by collective agreements at a time when pay levels across the economy have fallen for the first time in a decade and have fought for the health and safety of migrant workers hit by outbreaks in the country’s slaughterhouses.

At a European level, we are on the brink of achieving legislation that will promote collective bargaining as the best way to get workers their fair share of the wealth they create, combat union-busting and increase minimum wages.

New law on gender pay transparency has also been tabled after strong pressure from trade unions. The EU is discussing a long awaited “action plan” to implement in practice the principles of the “European Pillar of Social Rights” to improve living and working conditions for all. 

Inevitably, big business is lobbying to prevent progress. Uber have doubled their Brussels lobbying power and are trying to rewrite the law to create a special employment status that would allow them to pick and choose which rights to give their workers.

Employers’ groups are “passionately opposed” to pay transparency laws and want to water down action on wages. 

All of these battles are in the balance as Europe’s leaders gather for a summit dedicated to social issues in a week’s time at the behest of Portugal’s socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa.

They should know that this is Europe’s last chance with working people. A rise in right-wing populism was the political legacy of a decade of austerity. Only a decade of solidarity can undo the damage and create a Europe of social dialogue and rejuvenate democracy, including in the workplace. 

That has to start with a peoples’ recovery that prioritises massive public investment in the creation of quality, green jobs and fair taxation so all companies however large make a proper contribution to pay for the public services and infrastructure they depend on. The vast gaps in wealth that exist within and between countries must be closed. 

Solidarity has got us through the Covid crisis but solidarity cannot end as soon as the pandemic is over. Nobody will forget this experience quickly and nobody should forget its lesson: solidarity works. 

Luca Visentini is ETUC general secretary.

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