From Ukraine to the cost-of-living crisis to the pandemic, the social challenges of the moment demand a solidaristic response.
International Workers’ Day, May 1st, is usually a day for celebration around the world. But in 2022 it takes place under a shadow—the shadow of war in Europe, a crisis in the cost of living for workers and continuing damage to health and employment in the wake of the pandemic. There may seem little to celebrate.
Yet never has the solidarity which lies at the core of trade unionism—the principal theme of May Day—been better demonstrated than by European trade unions’ response to the brutal war in Ukraine. That solidarity and dedication were already in evidence throughout the pandemic. Workers have been at the sharp end of one crisis after another, with job losses, cuts in the value of wages and falling living standards.
The European Union and national governments must now be even more proactive in defending the future of social Europe. Huge investment is needed to ensure a sustainable and inclusive recovery, to guarantee workers’ incomes, achieve a just transition in the move away from Russian oil, gas and coal, and maintain social and environmental standards in the face of unprecedented challenges.
The European Trade Union Confederation has called for emergency measures to reduce energy prices and protect households, jobs and businesses from the impact of sanctions. There must be no return to the disastrous policy of austerity.
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The war has prompted a massive trade union mobilisation, with demonstrations for peace, industrial action and spontaneous boycotts of Russian goods and shipping. Unions have launched negotiations with employers and authorities to mitigate the impact of sanctions on workers across Europe and to integrate Ukrainian refugees into national labour markets. Humanitarian support on a vast scale has reached displaced people in Ukraine and the millions of refugees fleeing Putin’s invasion.
Ukrainian unions have opened up their buildings to accommodate thousands of people—with support from Romanian railway workers helping to transport mattresses and bedding into the country. In Poland, unions have established reception and advice centres and offered lodging to hundreds of refugees.
Hungarian and Moldovan unions have set up relief funds, and in Moldova and Slovakia too unions are providing beds free-of-charge in their own hotels and sanitoria. In Lithuania, teachers’ unions are live-streaming history lessons to Ukrainian students, while Greek journalists have dispatched equipment to Ukrainian colleagues struggling to counter Russian lies and to tell the true story of the war.
These are just a few examples of the overwhelming trade union response and opposition to the conflict. At European level, we are fiercely proud of this show of solidarity. The ETUC has been loud and clear in calling for an end to the war and contributing to the humanitarian aid effort.
The world’s eyes are on Ukraine but on May 1st we do not forget people in other countries where workers’ rights are abused. In Belarus, at least 14 trade union leaders and officials were recently detained. In Colombia, trade unionists put their lives at risk and in Brazil the mismanagement of the pandemic by the president, Jair Bolsonaro, has left vast numbers dead. In Turkey, rampant inflation is causing growing hardship and trade union activities are under attack.
The EU has a responsibility to defend human and workers’ rights globally. That is why the ETUC is fighting for a strong EU law on human-rights due diligence, to ensure that companies operating in Europe respect the rights of workers and trade unions in every country. More is needed than in the European Commission’s proposal, published in February, to involve workers and trade unions in shaping and monitoring strong sustainable business plans, to hold companies accountable and to change their behaviour. Last week was the ninth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,000 workers died. Lives must no longer be sacrificed in the interest of profits.
In Europe, workers made huge sacrifices to stem the spread of Covid-19. But now, even those who risked their lives in the battle are seeing their living standards plunge, due to the war, the pandemic and the global logistics crisis. Prices are rocketing but wages are not keeping up.
The ETUC is demanding a fairer Europe, with collective bargaining for all and adequate minimum wages. Evidence shows that collective bargaining by trade unions is linked to higher pay. The proposed directive on fair minimum wages must not only put a stop to the growing pay inequality in the majority of EU countries but also require member states to promote and support high levels of collective bargaining, in line with the stance of the European Parliament.
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The energy crisis has brought into sharp focus the need for swifter action to phase out fossil fuels and convert to renewable sources. The most recent, alarming evidence underlines that the growing threat of climate change can only be tackled through global solidarity. Trade unions are demanding a socially just transition to a green and climate-friendly economy, emphasising support for those whose communities and livelihoods are most vulnerable.
As trade unionists, we fight for equal rights for men and women. Yet 65 years after the Treaty of Rome enshrined the principle of equal pay, the gender pay gap is still stuck at around 14 per cent. The long-delayed directive on pay transparency can be an important step towards levelling up, but it must apply to all companies and give trade union representatives the tools to take action to end injustice.
Trade unions at European and national levels are also fighting to improve pay and conditions for the growing number of people working for platform companies. Often collaborating across borders, they have challenged the companies’ claims that the workers they manage are self-employed. As a result, many platform workers have gained new rights to security and decent wages and working conditions, and the commission has put forward legislation which should confirm that platform companies are employers.
May 1st 2022 could be a day for reflection as much as celebration. But one thing is sure: the need for trade-union and workers’ solidarity has never been greater.