hose who were attending the recent SERTUC International Conference were fortunate in that in the Social Europe seminar group they received an almost 'straight from the horse's mouth' report back of the European Trade Union Confederation's Seville Congress held in Spain in May this year.
Fortunate indeed for they received a report of an international trade union body trying to stir itself from the comfort zone of being a participant in the international diplomatic circuit to become a more aggressive fighter for trade union and worker rights in the struggle against a more neo-liberal European Union.
The ETUC's published Manifesto following the Congress is the first bar of music for those whose ears have longed for a stronger international agenda from what should be seen as an integral part of the twentysix domestic trade union movements. Importantly, the Manifesto speaks of 'moving on to the offensive' and 'strengthening European trade unionism and the capacities of the ETUC.'
In the years since 1991 when global capital let rip across the entire face of the planet, the neo-liberal agenda has been characterised by four key facets:
- first and foremost an attack on workers' and particularly trade union rights; this attack on trade union rights has been accompanied by a precipitous collapse of trade union density in many western countries and, in the UK, an even worse decline in the coverage of collective bargaining;
- secondly, there has been widespread privatisation of state utilities and corporations;
- thirdly, the introduction of market mechanisms (CCT) and private capital (PFI/PPP) into the provision of public services, ranging from health services to local transport facilities; and,
- fourthly, and paid for by points two and three, there has been a major reduction in levels of personal and corporate taxation and a diminution of social security and pension provision.
The preamble to the Manifesto recognises these attacks on working conditions and argues that 'Europe must tackle the competition between members states to lower tax rates, especially corporate taxes, and to cut social and employment protection. Only this way will we stop the slide towards a 'race to the bottom'.
The Manifesto itself is divided into five sections, all commit the ETUC, and by extension its affiliates across the continent, to action on the key issues of workers' rights and general issues of employment protection.
First and foremost on the labour market, the Manifesto argues for 'European standards' in 'working conditions, trade union rights and health and safety'. Plenty of scope here for action in the UK where just recently the Government talked out a private members' Bill aimed at providing rights for agency and temporary workers and the Government's flagship trade union recognition procedures in the Employment Relations Act have been criticised by the ILO as being inadequate to promote union recognition on at least four counts.
The Manifesto goes on to argue for the right to take 'strike action at transnational level'; our own anti-union laws would have to be dealt with before we could fall in line with that welcome clause.
There are some problematic aspects to the document however, for example, where it naively accepts the need to 'capture the flexicurity debate' when, for many trade unionists flexicurity gives flexibility for the employer with scant security for the worker.
Secondly, under the heading of social dialogue, collective bargaining and worker participation the Manifesto makes the case for European collective bargaining 'including at sectoral, cross border and transnational company level' and goes on to berate 'casino capitalism.'
This is vitally important as the coverage of collective bargaining is one of the most pressing issues facing the Labour Movement in the UK. The Institute of Employment Rights has shown that the coverage of collective bargaining and joint regulation fell from something near 85 per cent coverage of the labour force in 1980 to around 47 per cent in the mid 1990s and has continued to decline subsequently.
Thirdly, when dealing with economic, social and environmental governance the Manifesto commits the ETUC to the high skill, high productivity route to economic growth and to "making environmental and energy related issues part of the mainstream trade union agenda."
Even the fourth section "for a stronger EU" is not without merit. Although a commitment to a constitutional treaty is not TUC policy, the later claim on the EU to respect ILO standards in trade relations and to halt the use of trade to impose a neo-liberal framework on countries in the global south will be welcomed.
The fifth and final section calls for "stronger unions and a stronger ETUC" crucially by "developing a strategy of organisation to help affiliates increase the number of members."
The Manifesto is a timely reminder that when dealing with a supranational entity such as the EU individual national confederations will have diminished political leverage, never mind individual national unions or even bilateral linkages of unions across national boundaries.
The ETUC's Seville Manifesto is without doubt progressive and left of centre, certainly to the left of where the ETUC has traditionally positioned itself. It was adopted with the support of the British trade union movement through the TUC, it's now up to it and the affiliates to turn the words into actions.
A summary of the ETUC's Seville Manifesto is at: http://sevilla.etuc.org/-Towards-a-Seville-Manifesto-