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).