Europe’s trade unions respond to crisis

The economic crisis has forced trade unions, primarily at EU level, to consider its impact and measures to avoid a depression. Thus, they have promoted a number of initiatives in major European cities. The European Trade Union Confederation has called for a ‘new social deal’ and launched a campaign ‘Fight the crisis: put people first’. The latter mobilised trade unionists for the European Days of Action held in May 2009 in Madrid, Brussels, Berlin and Prague, which was followed by the adoption of the Paris Declaration.

A new social deal for Europe

The economic crisis, which began in early 2008, but was not felt in full force until the last quarter of 2008, has caused Europe’s trade unions to focus on the repercussions of the recession and to look at measures that aim to avoid the risks of the recession escalating into a depression. For the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the current crisis does not represent a ‘temporary weakness of the business cycle’ but a ‘structural crisis of the model of “casino capitalism” itself’ (ETUC statement, 4 May 2009).

The European trade union movement is also concerned that the crisis is primarily represented as one facing male workers and that its impact on working women is largely ignored. Its response has been to call for a new social deal in Europe that would focus on job creation and investment, as part of a European recovery plan. The trade unions view this new social deal as a way of addressing the need to strengthen welfare systems and workers’ rights. The emphasis is on solidarity as a way of offering protection against the excesses of financial capitalism.

In February 2009, the ETUC issued a dossier on the economic and social crisis, providing an overview of the European trade union movement’s actions, demands and resolutions in relation to the deepening global recession and calling for the adoption of effective measures to tackle the rapidly increasing number of layoffs. It also supported greater social protection and a redefinition of policy and values towards a social Europe. The dossier argued for the adoption of both the London declaration, which calls for effective measures to ensure that the economy continues to benefit from capital for investments and that it puts an end to outrageous financial speculation, and the charter Towards a new social deal for Europe, which the ETUC presents as a driver towards social justice and more and better jobs.

European action days

In the middle of May 2009, Europe’s trade unionists took to the streets in a series of coordinated protests in Madrid, Brussels, Berlin and Prague. The protests involved an estimated 350,000 people marching in support of European Action Days to fight the crisis, called by the ETUC. The demonstrators were demanding ‘more ambitious and more courageous action by Europe and national governments to help the growing armies of unemployed’. They were calling for tighter regulation of financial markets and for more worker influence in the boardrooms (Press release, 16 May 2009).These demonstrations were hard on the heel of social movement protests that had taken place in many European countries, including France, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia and the United Kingdom.

Campaign to fight the crisis

In March 2009, the ETUC launched a European campaign under the slogan ‘Fight the crisis: put people first’. Initially, the campaign was targeted at mobilising workers for the Euro-demonstrations on 14–16 May. Overall, the campaign is based on a five-point plan adopted by the ETUC and its affiliated members at a conference in Paris in late May. At that conference, with the participation of leaders of 82 ETUC member organisations, the ETUC called on the European Council to adopt an unambigious and binding commitment to fundamental rights.

Paris Declaration

The conference endorsed the Paris declaration (27Kb PDF), which advances the following five key points under the slogan ‘Fight the crisis – and win the aftermath’:

  • more and better jobs through investment in an expanded European recovery plan;
  • stronger welfare systems to provide more security and equality and avoid social exclusion;
  • stronger workers’ rights and an end to the dominance of short-termist market principles;
  • better pay through stronger collective bargaining;
  • European solidarity as a protection against the excesses of financial capitalism.

At the Paris conference, participants also agreed that the ETUC would call on the business community to engage in social dialogue on these issues to help resolve the crisis. Moreover, they agreed that they would develop this strategy further by mobilising in support of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) World Day for Decent Work on 7 October 2009. Actions are likely to involve rallies, demonstrations, marches and cultural events; thematic activities including meetings, seminars, press events and lobbying activities; together with electronic activities to facilitate the widest possible participation.

Sonia McKay, Working Lives Research Institute

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