Is There Still Hope for the Working Class?

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Addressing the Needs of Workers: Raising Wages, Lowering Prices, and Sharing Profits

The upcoming European Parliament elections provide an excellent opportunity for the left to refine its arguments. In her latest major State of the Union speech in September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen omitted any reference to the working class; the term ‘trade unions’ was notably absent. Conversely, the Left Group in the EP has played a key role in pushing through the introduction of a minimum wage in the EU and securing significant improvements in workers’ health protection. Enrique Carmona, a trade unionist from Spain, brings a wealth of experience not only in his home country but also on the ‘Brussels political stage.’ We have invited him to provide a concise overview of the priorities that the left needs to pursue in the coming months.

Roland Kulke

This article is part of transform!’s Economics Working Group Blog Series.

Let us envisage a worker contemplating their vote in the upcoming European elections…

“What is the purpose of the European Union for workers like us? What social rights or improved working conditions has it offered us? How has it contributed to the betterment of our lives and the lives of our families? Why is it important for me to participate in the upcoming European Parliament elections? And if I decide to participate, what do the candidates have to offer me? Do I want greater economic nationalism and stricter immigration policies? Hmmmm… I believe that dismissing immigrants is a more effective way of securing jobs for those of us who were born here. Also, I do not wish to pay taxes that only benefit the government. Instead, I want access to public healthcare, education, and pensions without having to bear the financial burden. If this is not possible, I would rather pay private companies that can manage these services more efficiently than the government. Considering all these factors, I am inclined to vote for the extreme right… Yes, now I’m sure… I’ll cast my vote for them!”

In recent times, the rise of fascist and “retrogressive” ideologies has found resonance within a working class weary of unfulfilled promises of social progress. The critical juncture of the 2024 elections requires a shift in this pattern to prevent a disastrous outcome.

The economic policies of the new right and the traditional European extreme right are starkly opposed to societal interests at large. Yet, there exists a potential scenario where the working class may lean towards supporting these groups in the European elections set for June 6-9, 2024. With the EU’s emphasis on economic freedoms and favouring large corporations over the rights of the working class, this potential success of the right, however, won’t be rooted in the economic benefits these parties offer. Instead, it will rely on exploiting fears and insecurities stemming from current EU priorities.

Disillusionment with the European Union is threatening to become a barrier to any internal transformation into a shining example of progress. Perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a chance to prevent this. Maybe the political powers that should lead this revival of societal optimism will choose to disregard half-hearted measures and express their support for the birth of a society that prioritizes the working class through the growth of a robust and environmentally friendly economy that leaves no one behind. The necessity for a more feminist, inclusive, egalitarian, and significantly “redder” progressive society is more necessary today than ever before.

It is time to take a bold step and propose a united left front in Europe. This would create a platform that is easily identifiable among the progressive electorate and is dedicated to fighting for effective and beneficial policies for all workers. This front must dare to propose a shift in the current balance of power, with the aim of giving workers and trade unions a greater capacity for influencing and shaping the EU of the future. It would be a united front that, at the very least in terms of labour and social issues, is recognisable to all voters as the leading force that seeks a new Social Contract, one that is adapted to the changes that the 21st century has brought upon all of us.

And for this possibility to materialise, left-wing progressive unions and political parties need to adopt a unified agenda in every European Union country. This agenda should aim to enhance and better the living conditions of the countless individuals who rely on their wages, retirement funds, or state financial assistance.

A comprehensive programme of this nature should encompass various elements that guide the social sustainability of the European project for a just transition in terms of environmental and digital transformations. To accomplish this, a Just Green and Digital Transition should involve the participation of trade unions and civil society in the planning and execution of all pertinent investments, with the objective of providing equitable wages that enable a decent standard of living for all individuals. This entails putting an end to poverty wages. Let’s add a guarantee that workers have appropriate representation through an empowered European Social Dialogue that has an equal “rapport de force” between employers and employees’ representations. Social rights should be at the core of a new European Social Dialogue and serve as the foundation for European Works Councils. This will enable worker representatives to effectively negotiate favourable conditions for workers. To establish such an EU-wide system of collective bargaining and to create a people-centred EU, the right to engage in European actions and strikes must be regarded as a fundamental right.

All of these factors are essential for establishing a European Union that puts people first. Nevertheless, there are also additional requisites that need to be fulfilled to maintain hope:

  • To combat abusive practices and social dumping, there should be a provision for joint and several liabilities in subcontracting chains. Additionally, it should be a legal requirement for companies to ensure compliance with relevant collective bargaining agreements and/or labour law. In public procurement, it should be mandatory to incorporate a criterion related to these issues. Furthermore, it is important for the EU to implement ILO Convention No. 81 on labour inspectorates.
  • Adaptability to transformation through lifelong training that improves the specific skills and abilities of workers.
  • The need for fair taxation is crucial. It is important to enhance fiscal cooperation and fiscal solidarity within the EU. Additionally, there should be a stronger oversight and conditionalities for public funds allocated to private businesses. This oversight should primarily focus on minimising the risks associated with the current economic crisis and protecting citizens and workers from its impact.
  • Migrant workers should be welcomed on equal terms and conditions. They should have the assurance of being able to work under the legal conditions and rights of the country where they are employed. Labour inspections must ensure that the above requirements are met, particularly in cases where evidence shows that the employer fails to uphold these conditions and rights.
  • The European Union must advocate for the public ownership or, at the very least the participation of the Member States through an extended public shareholding, of companies established within strategic sectors, such as those in the energy, health systems, transport, and food sectors. The objective is twofold: to decrease the prevalence of quasi-monopolistic practices and to extend this policy so that States can regain a sense of equilibrium in the face of the increasing power of private corporations and investment funds, ultimately benefiting workers and citizens.
  • It is increasingly crucial to prevent the negative impacts of competition such as social dumping, false self-employment, outsourcing, and the reduction of salaries. Ensuring the preservation and enhancement of workers’ rights is of the utmost importance.
  • An equitable and all-encompassing welfare system in Europe that ensures comprehensive and well-coordinated availability of sickness, education, and unemployment benefits, thereby amalgamating social safety nets and societal investments.
  • It is essential to negotiate mandatory sectoral agreements on a country-by-country basis: in a new EU of the Peoples, there must not be any space for anti-trade union practices or union busting. Therefore, it is crucial to safeguard collective bargaining at the highest levels, including public procurement.
  • Addressing violence and harassment against women in all settings, very specifically at the workplace: numerous women are victims of violence and harassment to various degrees due to their employment status, the nature of their job, or the circumstances within their industry. It is imperative to establish gender policies and procedures in order to eliminate this problem that impacts women in every industrial sector.
  • Enhancing the conditions of employment in platform work: individuals engaged in the platform economy must also be considered as employed workers! The rights of workers are non-negotiable! All types of collective representation should be ensured in order for platform workers to discover the most suitable means of fulfilling their right to affiliate in or create new unions.
  • Implement equitable pension systems throughout the European Union to provide assistance to retired workers. At the same time, it is paramount to cease the practice of extended working lives, while promoting the implementation of overall reductions in working hours (with no salary reduction).
  • The European Union must guarantee the implementation of a Social Progress Protocol that places workers’ and social rights above economic freedoms. This new Social Contract must be a guide and framework towards a 21st Century European Union that gives priority to the needs and aspirations of its people.

When I consider this, I am optimistic that class hope lives. What about you?

This article is part of transform!’s Economics Working Group Blog Series