The European Social Forum held in Malmo, Sweden from September 17-21 marked another step in the reappraisal by European trade unions of how to approach the neo-liberal policies of the European Union. The Forum featured a vigorous and productive debate on new directions for labor among traditional unions, the alternative labor movements, and allied social movements.
The debate could not come at a more opportune time. As the impact of the global economic crisis spreads throughout Europe, labor movements can not expect that the so-called European Social Model will protect workers from its consequences. That model, which emerged in the decades following WWII, was characterized—with national differences—by a generous welfare state, collective bargaining, and more or less full employment. It was the result of a tripartite “social partnership” between trade unions, employers, and the state. But the reality is that, today, even before the crisis fully envelops the continent, you can barely recognize many of the model’s traditional elements. And yet while trade unions increasingly realize that the European Social Model has been undermined, they still tend to look back to the model as strategy for the future.
But the good old days are gone. Today, the fundamental goals of the European Union are guided by the principles of neo-liberalism. Collective social programs such as health insurance, pensions, and educational systems have become partially privatized in some countries as politicians seek to open new markets to private capital. “Precarity” of work now extends to the entire life of an increasing number of workers. And collective bargaining is under direct attack by many European institutions. For instance, in the last two years, the European Court of Justice ruled on cases –filed by both corporations and the European Commission itself—which, while acknowledging that fundamental labor rights such as the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining exist in Europe, also ruled that they are less important than the right to freely compete by the employers. And the EU is just about to approve a new Directive (the term for European laws) which not only allows companies to increase working time to more than 60 hours per week, but also introduces individual bargaining in place of collective bargaining on this issue.
On migration there is a dual strategy: on the one hand, with the "Blue Card Directive” the EU is promoting access to Europe by highly skilled and educated workers. On the other hand, policies toward undocumented workers are becoming increasingly xenophobic, legitimating current laws in some member states by “regulating” detention for up to 18 months as well as allowing repressive “deportation” policies.
Overall, conditions for workers in Europe are worsening. According to official EU statistics—which in many cases are underestimates—around 8% of all employees in the European Union are officially registered as unemployed. More than 16% of the EU population, that is 72 million EU citizens, are currently considered at the risk of poverty (with an income below 60% of the median income in their country). Furthermore, since the 1980s real wage increases are no longer in line with productivity growth and the wage share (the workers income in relation to the overall national income) has declined in almost all European countries. (see European Commission, European Economy, Statistical Annex, 2006.
A developing discourse
Many trade unions are increasingly becoming open critics of neo-liberal Europe, and the European labor movement is trying to find ways to respond to the attacks that it is now under. This includes the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which is the formal representative of trade unions within the EU’s tripartite structure and which is deeply enmeshed with the bureaucracy which runs the EU. They formally support both the Lisbon Treaty—the latest attempt to redesign the institutional and political framework of the EU along neo-liberal lines, and the aggressive free-trade agenda of the EU Commission (see Global Europe Competing in the World).
This contradiction between support and criticism made the recent European Social Forum (ESF) (Malmo, Sweden, September 17-21) an important laboratory for further developments. In fact, this sixth ESF had the largest trade union participation ever. It is likely that if the ETUC’s strategies of the last few decades had been successful, we would not have had such a big trade union participation in the Forum.
Although still in a germinal form, and at a moment of weakness for trade unions and social movements in Europe generally, this participation is part of an attempt to think differently about the role and practices of trade unions as they face the challenges of globalization. One indication of this is that at the Malmo ESF, the labor events and activities were many and well attended, with trade unionists and activists coming from every part of Europe. This gave labor issues a greater centrality and visibility than in any previous forum.
In general, forum events occurred along two strategic tracks, not necessarily in competition with each other, sometimes with exchanges, and even with some participants involved in both tracks. On the one hand representatives of the traditional European tripartite strategy of social partnership with employers and institutions mainly focused on the “decent work” campaigns which aim to grant decent work for all through the negotiation of social clauses. On the other hand, representatives of more radical trade unions and social activists searched for new forms of collaboration with other social movements based on a more comprehensive definition of work and a wider agenda covering issues beyond the work place. The ambiance of the social forum permitted these two trends of thought to be expressed in dialog rather conflict, although a distance sometimes remained evident.
The Labor and Globalization Network
An important role was played by the Labor and Globalization Network(L&G Network) comprised of trade unions, other labor groups, and related social movements. Born within the World Social Forum process, it has been most fully developed in Europe and it proposed many of the labor events at the Malmo Forum. The L&G network contains within it actors with a range of expectations and different political strategies but the network is shaping a discourse on many issues, including the most controversial ones. Specifically at Malmo, the network helped focus the debate on the urgent need to mobilize against the neo-liberal social policies of the EU. As a result, the L&G network succeeded in launching a common campaign against the social policies of the EU. The first step of this campaign is the struggle against the working time directive which will involve actors far beyond the trade union movement. The campaign will also include a counter summit of European social movements in Brussels in March 2009, to challenge the EU Council of Ministers.
Other well attended sessions at Malmo, which included representatives from the ETUC, debated recent anti-labor rulings by the European Court of Justice and ended up calling for mobilizations/demonstrations against the decisions. Although the participants in the sessions urged the ETUC to promote these mobilizations/demonstrations, they decided to stage the protests even without formal ETUC support.
Many labor participants at Malmo—but not the ETCU—also called for support to stop the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty in the countries which still must approve it (for instance, Sweden), thus using the ratification process as leverage for including progressive social clauses. In addition, participants called for protests in Brussels, in December 2008, during the European Council of Ministers, and urged the ETUC to support hem.
In sum, an increasing number of trade unions and activists are questioning both the political approach and the forms of action, that have until now been exclusively based on the traditional ETUC social-partnership approach. To address this increasingly open critique to the EU Policies by its own members, the ETUC has just announced its own campaign called Fight the Crisis: Employment, Wages, and Workers Rights are our Priorities.It will include a demonstration in Strasbourg on December 16th, when the European Parliament will discuss and vote on the Working Time Directive. Although this can be seen as a positive step, it is less than is needed and hardly capable of helping the convergence of the whole labor and social movement.
It is good news that an increasing number of trade unions understand that establishing a new balance of power more favorable for workers is a precondition for any further negotiation with EU institutions. However, it is clear that actually rethinking a new development model in a global perspective remains a difficult process. Questions abound: what to produce? for whom? what kind of social relationships should production be based on? what kind of democratic mechanisms are needed to implement a new model?
One critically important issue is the dialog between European unions and those in the Global South over the aggressive agenda of the Global Europe strategy. This strategy—which the ETUC supports—is based on strengthening the competitiveness of European companies and the continued exploitation of energy and natural resources of the South. This issue of North-South relations has not been resolved within the ETUC or by many trade unions in Europe and this makes hard to build the forms of international solidarity that would be needed to face the challenges of globalization. Emblematically, as the trade unions of Latin America and Asia were celebrating the failure of the Doha Round of the WTO in Geneva last summer as a successful result of their struggles, the ETUC was basically silent before the negotiations started and did not even release any comment about their failure.
On climate change in Malmo we saw the first European attempts to open a dialog between environmental movements and trade unions. The trade union movement increased its awareness on the need to face this crisis. Still there are strong contradictions, especially for those trade unions who still consider workers only from the perspective of the work place rather than workers as a class with interests that transcend the workplace. That is why the decision of many European trade unions to join the mobilizations on climate change to take place in Copenhagen, December 2009, during the United Nations meeting on climate—although just a first step, is important.
As the financial system collapse announces the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the axioms of neo-liberal ideology which poisoned the planet in the last decades is collapsing too. Building new forms of international solidarity, capable of avoiding a race to the bottom typical of globalized capitalism requires new strategies and new actions--in Europe no less than in the rest of the world