Workers are under tremendous pressure amid the cost-of-living crisis. But trade unions are showing resilience to inspire.
May Day is an occasion for both celebration and dissent.
On May Day, we celebrate the victories of the trade union movement, such as 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 super-charging 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 buy food and pay 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.
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Austerity 2.0 is under way. We can see this in various policy-makers’ demands for wage restraint and the devastating interest-rate hikes causing real harm to workers. It is evident too in Emmanuel Macron’s undemocratic pension reform in France and the Danish government’s elimination of a public holiday.
But, as we shall see on the streets of Europe today, the fightback in also in train: 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 among the many groups who have won in pay disputes in recent months.
Unions are also battling, and beating, union-busting tactics to organise new workplaces, 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.
So there is much for our movement to take pride in this May Day. The challenge though is to transform this ‘union spring’ into lasting change.
That is why trade union renewal will be the priority at the European Trade Union Confederation congress in Berlin later this month. A thousand delegates and other participants, representing over 45 million workers, will debate and agree a programme of action for the crucial next four years.
It is still the case that too few workers enjoy the benefits of union membership and collective-bargaining agreements. In half of European Union member states, half the workforce or fewer are covered by collective bargaining—and those with the lowest coverage have the lowest wages. That must change.
The ETUC and its affiliates have secured an EU directive on adequate minimum wages, which obliges all member states to work with unions and commit by law to increase collective-bargaining coverage. They are required to promote collective bargaining and combat union-busting, and where coverage is below 80 per cent to adopt a plan of action to elevate it. 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 implemented in domestic law.
But that is only the start. The EU is being left behind on labour policy by the United States, where Joe Biden’s administration has made funding under its $4 billion Inflation Reduction Act dependent on companies paying union wages, supporting a just transition and curbing corporate excess.
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It is good that the EU’s Green Deal matches the US scheme on subsidies to industry. Now it must match it on workers’ rights and social conditions attached. We can no longer tolerate vast sums of public money being handed to companies which act against the public interest by paying poverty wages and leaving our underfunded social systems to pick up the bill—companies such as Amazon, which received more than €1 billion in public contracts over just three years.
That is why one of the main demands in the ETUC’s Berlin manifesto will be a ban on public money being handed to union-busting, tax-dodging, environment-destroying bosses. Failure to reign in the rampant inequality and corporate greed which have 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 is the future European trade union members will be demonstrating for today. And that will be the objective of our discussions and decisions at the ETUC congress this month.
The history of May Day tells us that real change is possible—when working people join together to demand better.
Esther Lynch was elected general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation in December 2022. She has extensive trade union experience at Irish, European and international levels, starting with her election as a shop steward in the 1980s.