European unions: gaining confidence as austerians stumble
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) held what it calls a ‘mid-term conference’ in Dublin this week, in between the 2011 and 2015 Congresses. It’s an opportunity to take stock, halfway through the mandate of the elected leadership, and decide how to address the next two years.
Of course, the big issue continues to be the economic crisis, and the way it’s been used to justify austerity and attacks on trade union and workplace rights. So there wasn’t much in the way of new policy development, although some ideas that have been building strength came more sharply into focus. The TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady warned at the conference that, as austeritry was seen increasingly to have failed, the right were replacing it with a further round of so-called ‘structural reform’.
As we were in Dublin, the centenary of the famous docks lockout was much in evidence, and a good reminder that union solidarity across Europe is nothing new. Many delegates from the continent were surprised to see evidence that, despite the history of British and Irish conflict, the TUC sent food to the strikers and their families worth millions in current prices. David Begg, the General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, shocked the conference by saying that the Troika (the IMF, European Commission and ECB) had done more damage to the Irish economy in three years than British rule had done over centuries.
In a joint article published in the Irish Times to coincide with the conference, David Begg and the ETUC General Secretary Bernadette Segol called for a ‘new deal’ for Europe, described in the ETUC’s Social Compact which sets out a range of solutions to the crisis facing Europe.
On the conference floor, there was overwhelming support for radical policies such as the German unions’ ‘New Marshall Plan for Europe’ which would mobilise resources through taxes (including the Robin Hood Tax) and eurobonds to invest in infrastructure and training, and to support the quality public services that Unison’s Gloria Mills, part of the TUC delegation, called the best expression of solidarity you can find.
Austerity has clearly hit not just working class communities but also their trade unions hard, and many at the ETUC conference were still clearly shell-shocked by the onslaught, especially in countries where the social dimension had remained strong until the global crisis hit. There was a lot of concern that progressive political parties – especially on the left – were, as Frances O’Grady put it in the opening panel session, not resisting the demand for austerity strongly enough, and, even worse, not coming up with a popular alternative.
But the unions in Dublin were encouraged by the evident failure of austerity – which has trashed several countries’ economies without working in any of them – to start arguing and campaigning for that alternative. Getting that message out, and winning support from our members, the electorate and therefore politicians, will be the task of the ETUC and its national and sectoral affiliates over the next two years.