«There is much for our movement to take pride in this May Day. The challenge now is to transform this union spring into lasting change», Esther Lynch says. The General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation’s op-ed
May Day is an occasion for both celebrations and dissent. On May Day, we celebrate the victories of the trade union movement, like our successful campaign for the eight-hour day, which gave birth to international workers day. And we follow in the footsteps of our movement’s founders by demanding concrete improvements in the lives of working people now and in the future.
This year in particular the European labour movement has every reason to be on the march. We have a cost-of-living crisis caused by corporations cynically supercharging their prices and profits under the cover of supply problems arising from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. At the same time, workers are struggling to pay for food and rent as a result of the biggest cut in real wages since the start of this century.
Despite that, only a handful of European countries have imposed windfall taxes on excess profits to deal with the profit-price spiral driving inflation. Or as I prefer to call it: ‘greedflation’. Instead, many political leaders are again determined to make ordinary people pay for yet another crisis they played no part in creating.
Austerity 2.0 is underway: from various policy makers demands for wage restraint and the introduction of devastating interest rate hikes that are causing real harm to workers to President Macron’s undemocratic pension reform in France or the Danish government’s elimination of a public holiday.
But, as we’ll see on the streets of Europe today, so is the fightback.
A dozen days of nationwide stoppages in France, the biggest wave of walkouts in Britain since the 1980s and Germany’s ‘mega strike’ of industrial action.
Nurses in Latvia, tyre factory workers in Czechia, and transport workers in the Netherlands are also among the many groups of workers who have won pay disputes in recent months.
Unions are battling and beating union busting tactics to organise new workplaces too, with Amazon workers in Germany and Britain taking strike action for the first time.
All over Europe, workers are organising and winning through their trade unions. There is much for our movement to take pride in this May Day. The challenge now is to transform this union spring into lasting change.
That’s why trade union renewal will be the top priority at the European Trade Union Confederation’s congress in Berlin later this month, where 1000 delegates and participants representing over 45 million workers will debate and agree a programme of trade union action for the next crucial four years.
It's still the case that too few workers receive the benefits of union membership and collective bargaining agreements. That must change.
In half of EU member states, 50% of workers or fewer are covered by collective bargaining. The consequences are clear: the member states with the lowest levels of collective bargaining have the lowest wages. The ETUC and its affiliates have already secured a new EU Directive on adequate minimum wages, which includes requires member states to work with unions and adopt legal commitments to increase collective bargaining coverage. All member states are now required to promote collective bargaining and combat union busting while those with coverage of below 80% are required to make a plan of action to change that. Unions at national level must work to ensure that this important change in direction for the EU - which a decade ago was arguing that collective bargaining was incompatible with economic growth – is now implemented in national law.
But it’s only the start. The EU is already being left behind on labour policy by the US, where the Biden administration has made funding under its $4bn Inflation Reduction Act dependent on companies paying union wages, supporting a just transition and curbing corporate excess.
It’s good that the EU’s Green Deal matches the US’s scheme on subsidies to industry. Now it must match it on workers’ rights and social conditions attached to that cash.
We can no longer tolerate vast sums of public money being handed to companies who act against the public interest by paying poverty wages and leaving our underfunded social systems to pick up the bill. Companies like Amazon, who received more than 1 billion Euro in public contracts over just three years.
That’s why one of the main demands in the ETUC’s Berlin manifesto will be a total ban on public money being handed to union-busting, tax-dodging, environment-destroying bosses. Failure to reign in the rampant inequality and the corporate greed which has caused the current crisis would be a gift to the far-right.
Europe needs a new economic and social model that puts people and the planet before profit at any cost. That’s the future that European trade union members will be demonstrating for today. And that will be the objective of our discussions and decision at the ETUC’s congress later this month.
The history of May Day tells us that real change is possible when working people join together to demand better.
Esther Lynch, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation
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