The in-out debate mustn’t overshadow the need for social Europe
This year’s TUC President Lesley Mercer, from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, looks ahead to the European Trade Union Confederation’s 40th anniversary conference on Monday, where she will be representing British trade unions with General Secretary Frances O’Grady and General Council spokesperson on Europe, Billy Hayes. You can follow the conference on twitter using #ETUC40.
Trade union confederations gathering in Madrid this weekend will be debating the issues that really matter to ordinary people. How to deliver sustainable growth and jobs? How to give citizens, workers and their unions a genuine role in economic and monetary union? How to embed a true social dimension into everything the European Union does?
The ETUC’s groundbreaking ‘Social Compact for Europe’ spells out what a social dimension means. Fair wages and progressive taxation, access to equality and social protection, and the opportunity for workers to have a voice at work through union involvement in free collective bargaining and social dialogue.
The corrosive impact of wage inequality, and tax policies skewed in favour of the wealthy, are quite rightly getting a lot of air time. But the purchasing power of the average wage packet continues to fall and the talk of getting tough on the tax dodgers somehow doesn’t get translated into hard action. Our own government steadfastly refuses to follow the lead of other EU countries in introducing a Robin Hood Tax, which would mean financial transactions that do little for the common good at least generating tax revenue for more productive investment.
On equality and social protection it should be blindingly obvious by now that there is a high risk of social unrest arising from unemployment and the economic situation, so the social aspects of EU policy should be given a heightened importance. Yet austerity is being used to halt gender improvements, hit welfare as well as jobs and wages, and to increase social exclusion and poverty. A 600% increase in the number of food banks in the UK, over the past two years alone.
In my own area of health, the worries about the implications of deep recession on health and wellbeing are starting to surface. Last week representatives of medics and other leading health professionals wrote an open letter to political leaders in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal – the four most badly hit economies. The letter warned of the health dangers and called for immediate action to minimise these dangers. Here in the UK, repatriation of the Working Time Directive is becoming a political (and macho?) badge of honour. Fat chance of any cabinet minister allowing themselves to be treated by a doctor at the end of a 20 hour shift.
On social dialogue, the road map adopted by the European Council in December recognised the value of structured and regular dialogue between unions, employers and governments and called for more discussion about how it can best be made to work. But what are we experiencing on the ground, especially in England? Employment rights, collective bargaining and partnership work coming under attack from many angles. If the same energy had been put into creating the right conditions for workers and trade unions to engage with employers and governments to drive the improvements in skills and productivity that are vital to economic recovery, the UK might not be heading for a triple dip recession. We need to be following the examples set by countries like Germany and Wales.
So plenty to chew over at the ETUC conference. Hopefully one of the outcomes will be a new sense of common purpose about pushing for a better social dimension to all EU policies, particularly those aimed at growth, backed up by an effective monitoring system that can test the social impact of policies before they get anywhere near implementation. No need for any Treaty changes in any of this. Just the political will and backbone.