ETUC Confederal Secretary Judith Kirton-Darling spoke at a GMB-Unison-Unite conference on European issues today (Thursday). Here is an edited version of what she said.
This is a defining period for the trade union movement across Europe. Despite the dramatic collapse in autumn 2008 following the fall of Lehmann Brothers, neo-liberalism re-asserted itself with a vengeance bringing a swing to the political right across the western world.
Rather than address the causes of the crisis – growing inequality in our societies and deregulated financial markets – political and economic elites have intensified the crisis by relying on failed policies.
The cost has been enormous and continues to escalate. According to the IMF, five years of global financial crisis has cost the taxpayers globally over $10 trillion. Most of that has been bank bailouts, but do you think they are grateful?
The financial markets have turned into vultures circling over one indebted country after another. One after another, countries have been picked off by the markets, their public services and economies ransacked, their young people’s futures trashed, their Governments replaced.
If only our political leaders had the sort of solidarity European trade unions are showing each other, they would have called a halt to this rampage.
While speculators are let off the hook, inequality is rocketing: inequalities of income, wealth, health and education. Hard fought rights are trampled over – especially women’s rights and equality. After years of wages stagnating or falling, wages and pensions are under attack across the Continent, allegedly to ‘drive growth’. But recovery will not come through cutting wages – our leaders have signed up to a collective suicide pact.
In Greece, the EU, European Central Bank and the IMF demanded a 22% cut in the national minimum wage and 25% cut in the basic pension. Romanian and Bulgarian wages have been slashed to maintain competitiveness in a spiraling race to the bottom. Forcing people to attempt to live on average pay of £40 a week – which is what austerity means in South East Europe – is pushing some of our poorest regions into extreme poverty. Hunger and energy poverty are rising rapidly in our Continent.
Enough is enough.
Wealth is increasingly concentrating in fewer and fewer hands. The richest half a percent now own over one third of the world’s wealth. Even in Sweden, one of the most cohesive EU countries, the average of the top 50 incomes is 46 times the average industrial worker’s wage. A full working life.
This inequality has created a vast pool of footloose global capital looking for the quickest returns – gambling with currencies, monetisation of debt, high frequency trading. Today, the speculators are playing chicken with governments, pushing us all to the brink of a much larger economic crisis.
Nearly 25 million people are unemployed in Europe today. Workers are paying for a crisis not of their making, often before they’ve even made it to their first job.
One in five young workers in Europe are unemployed – over half of Spanish and Greek young workers. Last October, I met the Spanish Indignados who had marched to Brussels demanding an end to the scourge of youth unemployment and underemployment – bright and talented people who have been cast aside. Coming from the North-East of England, marches of the unemployed have particular resonance. Last week at the STUC Congress, the same story came powerfully from Scottish young members desperately trying to get their first break.
We are facing a catastrophe amongst our young and the threat of a lost generation to unemployment, underemployment and precarious work. Paradoxically we are also facing major skills gaps in key industries and trades. It’s perverse and obscene.
Until the underlying macroeconomic policies are changed to promote employment and greater equality in our societies, our young will continue to be sacrificed. This is a political decision not an economic one.
Enough is enough.
The logic of ever-stricter austerity, reinforced undemocratically and irresponsibly by EU governments, is directly at loggerheads with the investment needed. Investment in training and education, quality public services and the transformation of our transport and energy infrastructure to meet the challenge of climate change. But this is no accident. Neoliberal forces want to use the crisis as a means of rolling back the very foundations of social Europe: workers’ rights, the welfare state and public services.
On 24 February, ECB President Mario Draghi announced in the Wall Street Journal that the European social model was dead. The state, invented to protect the weak against the strong and to bring people towards security and equality, is being wantonly mutilated. The last crisis of this scale in the 1930s, led (but after the horrors of the second world war) to the creation of the Welfare State based on principles of Universalism which guaranteed a standard of living for the working class and “cash back” for the middle class in return for security for all. Because the quality of life of all of us, depends upon the quality of life of us all.
This crisis is being used to rewrite industrial relations and deregulate our labour markets still further. The UK government has been central in these efforts.
In recent weeks we’ve seen EU proposals on: limiting the right to strike; increased scope for privatization of public services; and, the creation of loopholes for small firms to avoid health and safety laws. In the last year the International Labour Organisation has sent urgent missions to several European countries because national labour law changes there have violated the most basic of rights: to organize freely and bargain collectively.
As European trade unions, we face the challenge of a generation to fight for and defend our basic rights. To do this, we have to raise our voice. I remember the Unison recruitment advert ‘One’, with a single member being upheld by all the union’s members in deals with her boss. This is what we need to create at international level. This fight demands stronger solidarity.
We have to break down the negative stereotypes being pushed about our fellow workers in or from other countries – these are the seeds of xenophobia – the seeds of conflict. We have to reject the attempt to divide people and see that we are facing the same attack.
To do this we need to change the narrative – build alliances within and outside our movement – with progressive academics and NGOs, community groups and others.
The fightback has started nationally:
- in Spain the unions have joined with the indignados – on 29th March there was the biggest General Strike for a generation
- in the Czech Republic unions led mass demonstrations and a major campaign against the government’s pension reform – the government fell last week
- this week will see elections in France, Germany and Greece – these could be game-changing
We have to better link our struggles and victories together.
At our Congress in Athens in May last year, it was agreed to launch a Europe-wide union campaign to fight against austerity, the attack on social Europe and promote solidarity.
On 29 February this year, European trade unions joined together behind a simple but clear message to our leaders:
‘Enough is enough! There are alternatives’
That was only the start. We want to see a new Europe with…
- a proper strategy for growth, for manufacturing, for making the transition to a greener economy;
- decent jobs, apprenticeships and real educational opportunities for young people;
- revitalised public services – water, health, education and housing, caring for people from cradle to grave;
- solidarity between rich and poor countries to halt the speculators and a new deal that helps spread the benefits of globalisation;
- social justice with fairer wages and fairer taxes – with action against tax havens and a Robin Hood Tax; and
- fundamentally, we want a return to balanced budgets, yes, but based on sustainable growth and taxing wealth, not slashing public services and workers’ living standards.
That new Europe will not take shape without strong trade unions free to bargain on behalf of working people, a voice in every workplace, and increased membership of European trade unions.
The future of Europe depends on popular support for a progressive vision of fairness, investment and jobs.
We in Europe’s trade unions know we can count on you to campaign for what’s right, and fight what’s wrong.
There is no more time to lose. Enough is enough!