European Workers Betrayed

Unlike the U.S., Europe has strong, influential labor unions; yet they have been unable, or unwilling, to stop the austerity-based policies demanded by European institutions, reports Andrew Spannaus.

By Andrew Spannaus  Special to Consortium News

in Milan, Italy

Railway workers are striking across France, bringing up to 80 percent of high-speed trains to a halt in recent days. In a major European country dependent on rail for a significant portion of its transportation, the protests are predictably causing chaos, as organized labor flexes its muscles to show that it is still a force to be reckoned with.

On April 10, German airport workers also went on strike, leading to the cancellation of over 800 flights by the national air carrier, Lufthansa. In this case the dispute is over a pay increase for around 2.3 million public sector employees, who have seen their incomes stagnate despite the country’s economic growth overall.

Such protest actions are not uncommon across Europe, and indeed have come to be accepted as a fact of life in many countries. Labor union membership varies greatly throughout the continent, from less than 10 percent in France – despite the effective strikes – to a high of around 70 percent in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Denmark. Yet even when their membership figures are modest,unions often have a central role in collective bargaining, and they are eager to show that they are still relevant in a world that has changed greatly due to deregulation and globalization over the past 35 years.

Organized labor’s clout in Europe is declining though, which should not come as a surprise. One of the central tenets of the economic policies followed by the European Union is “flexibility” of the labor market, part of the overall neoliberal philosophy that views any sort of restrictions and rules on labor and capital as stifling profit-making, free enterprise.

Making Easier to Fire People

EU: Betraying Workers

Since the 1990s in particular, there has been a concerted, top-down effort to weaken protections for workers, claiming this is the only way to attract capital and unleash a new wave of economic growth. The E.U. constantly harps on the need for “structural reforms” that allow for “removing the constraints to job creation and labor market participation.” This generally means making it easier to fire people, which in theory will allow companies to hire new workers when needed, without the fear of a permanent cost burden in the future.

Labor rules are indeed rigid in many European countries. Yet it’s no secret that to workers living through an economic crisis, such reforms can sound like a one-way street towards lower living standards, at precisely the wrong time.

The legislative push for greater labor market flexibility in Europe has often been accompanied by public denigration of unions and any sort of regulation of public services.

Defending jobs is considered selfish. For example, when older workers seek protections to avoid finding themselves jobless in their 50s or 60s, or they obtain state aid through various types of social shock absorbers, a debate inevitably ensues about how older members of society are stealing from the young. In a situation of allegedly limited resources, the establishment, and the media that serves it, pits one generation against the other.

One of the major accusations against unions is that they think only of themselves, not of the needs of society as a whole. However, workers make up the majority of society. It is clearly not in their interests to accept the neoliberal establishment demand that they should accept a “new reality” and embrace globalization.

In recent decades organized labor in Europe has generally failed to work effectively for the common good. It’s not that unions have not defended workers’ rights when faced with a changing labor market; rather, they have focused on narrow goals, while failing to counter the economic policies of the European Union itself, which have an overriding effect on political decision-making.

The dominant issue in the E.U. today is the social and economic effects of the austerity-based, monetarist policies emanating from Brussels and Frankfurt. Those policies have provoked a widespread backlash against governing institutions. This is being expressed in the rise of so-called populist, anti-system political parties.

European labor unions: a long way from their heyday of militant action

Unions: Part of the Problem

It’s legitimate to ask where the major unions were when the Troika – the formal alliance between the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – was imposing massive austerity on countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy?

What did organized labor do to stop the construction of the E.U. based on neoliberal principles, which has led to high unemployment and unstable working conditions, all while guaranteeing practically unlimited bailouts for the financial sector? European labor unions have come a long way from its heyday of militant industrial action and general strikes in the early half of the 20th Century. 

There have been plenty of protests and strikes over time, but if we take a step back from the single battles, we see that war has not been waged at the highest level. This is because many large labor unions have essentially been co-opted by the establishment over the past 25 years. Instead of fighting it against, unions have participated in the construction of economic policies that are diametrically opposed to most workers’ interests.

The E.U. has formally adopted the neoliberal mantra that any state intervention into the economy is negative, and that “flexibility” and attraction of financial investment are the only roads to growth. There are exceptions of course, but the ideology is clear, and it is used as a bludgeon whenever a member state attempts to react to a crisis with tools such as public investment or better regulation. These have been branded as contrary to the overarching principle of “competition.”

Embed from Getty Images

The Maastricht Betrayal

European workers had been promised a protection of their interests in the lead-up to the formal integration of the European market. For example, Jacques Delors, then President of the Commission of the European Communities, pictured above giving an address to the British Trades Union Congress in Bournemouth in 1988, promised that an integrated European market would develop “backward regions of the community,” “restructure industrial regions in decline,” “fight against long-term unemployment,” “provide jobs for young people,” and protect the social safety net.

“It would be unacceptable for Europe to become a source of social regression, while we are trying to rediscover together the road to prosperity and employment,” said Delors. And the unions bought it. “The only card game in town is in a town called Brussels,” said Ron Todd, then general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union.

But the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 betrayed these promises, gradually hardening over the years through the increasing reach of E.U. legislation that has ultimately gone hand-in-hand with the harsh budget cuts and tax increases demanded during the Euro crisis that affected numerous countries starting in 2009-2010.

Because of a lack of “market confidence” in the sovereign debt of Greece, Spain, Italy and others, the Troika demanded cuts in wages, pensions, healthcare and numerous other public services. These moves paid tribute to the financial markets, which ultimately made things worse. They acted as a damper on economic activity and thus further aggravated the fiscal crisis.

The result, even when recovery eventually set in, has been high long-term unemployment, an explosion of the percentage of temporary and unstable jobs, and low wages, the exact opposite of what Delors had promised.

But because it benefits their interests and not workers’, Troika officials continue to push the same formula. Just a few days ago, for example, David Lipton of the IMF told Spaniards that it was thanks to “wage moderation” and “flexibility” that jobs are being recovered in Spain.

But given the continuing problems “there is still the need for greater flexibility in labor markets to provide a new engine of growth,” he demanded.” Translated bluntly, the message is that working for less money, with fewer protections, is the only way to hope you’ll get a job at all.

A Rousing Speech

On April 6, I went to a meeting of a labor union in Milan to hear a talk by Giorgio Cremaschi, formerly a national leader of the FIOM metalworkers union, an affiliate of one of the largest labor organizations in Italy, the CGIL.

Cremaschi gave a rousing speech to the local members of the independent USB (Base Labor Union) about the disastrous policies pushed by the E.U., which have prioritized budget rules over human well-being. This has come to the point – Cremaschi noted – that the basic social rights enshrined in the Italian Constitution now take a back seat to the latest addition to the country’s constitutional law, the requirement of a balanced budget.

The problem discussed at the USB meeting is that the largest labor unions in Italy have consistently refused to object to the neoliberal policies of the E.U. They haven’t opposed any of the European treaties adopted over the past 25 years, for example, which have gradually removed decision-making power from national governments and put it in the hands of a supranational bureaucracy that generally caters to a system dominated by speculative finance.

However, Cremaschi’s most pointed remarks were aimed not at the institutions in Brussels or the bankers on Wall Street; he laid the blame for the imposition of what he calls “fascism” against working families, squarely at the feet of the political class in Italy, and the large labor unions themselves.

Cremaschi criticized centrist leaders for accepting the narrative that globalization, with its negative effects on working families, is an objective, inevitable process. The truth is, he said, that a series of decisions were made to impose a free market ideology that has benefitted the few, while impoverishing the many. His conclusion was that real change can only come through opposition to the instrument used to force the acceptance of these policies, the European Union.

Cremaschi and the USB approach these issues from the left, but the same basic arguments are used heavily by right-wing groups that have emerged in elections throughout Europe over the past year. The economic policies of the E.U. represent the common enemy for these anti-system unions and political parties, and in their view, mainstream organized labor is just as guilty as the Troika for the economic difficulties of the middle and lower class across Europe.

Andrew Spannaus is a journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He was elected Chairman of the Milan Foreign Press Association in March 2018. He has published the books “Perché vince Trump” (Why Trump is Winning – June 2016) and “La rivolta degli elettori” (The Revolt of the Voters – July 2017).

22 comments for “European Workers Betrayed

  1. rosemerry
    April 16, 2018 at 16:53

    I live in France, where Micron(sic) Rothchild is determined to ensure that the solidarity that underlines the support for good working conditions for workers in the public sector is destroyed by quick and sharp “reforms” which he has scornfully “explained” for several hours on TV just as his forces were bombing another country. So many complain about “functionaries” as has happened here for 200 years, but the removal of uneconomic rail lines (who cares about school children, workers or the environmental impact on the roads?) but when the numbers drop, privatisation expands and there is no improvement in the lives of most of us, unless we own the corporations doing the takeovers.

  2. April 15, 2018 at 15:47

    Good article, but it’s important to note that there have been periods in history when labor unions went beyond their parochial interests, and acted for the common good. And it’s interesting that there are forces in the U.S. labor movement thinking in the direction. In 2014 an organization called Bargaining for the Common Good was founded in D.C. You can learn more on my blog, especially this article

  3. Rong Cao
    April 13, 2018 at 17:55

    The globalization in and off itself is inevitable. But each nation’s government should play a significant role in redistributing the gains of big corporate by taxes and other means for the common good of the society. Simply opposing the globalization with a small, weak and divided government won’t solve the wealth inequalities.

    • backwardsevolution
      April 14, 2018 at 04:40

      I think globalization will die a natural death. It’s already happening.

  4. James
    April 13, 2018 at 16:13

    I constantly speak with young and otherwise intelligent people who think that it’s wonderful how the US is embracing the “gig economy,” and that the opposition to unrestricted immigration is simply xenophobia and racism.

    I can only guess that the less fortunate among them will wonder where their economic stability went in the decades to come, while the luckier ones will be eager candidates for the gated patrolled enclaves of the increasingly desperate affluent class.

  5. Larry Gates
    April 13, 2018 at 03:38

    Here in the United States we have only two political parties, and both have fully adopted the neoliberal agenda. The union movement is almost dead. Workers have no place to turn as their plight become more and more desperate.

  6. Bazin
    April 13, 2018 at 00:10

    The gradual decline of labour unions as it was demanded by the neo-liberals and big corporations the precarious situation of the working class became worst. Weather we accept it or not this trend will never go away nor we see improvement of life conditions with out a determined resistance of workers. We have to stop denying and acknowledge that capitalist classes have never ceased nor eased their class war against the working class.

    a luta continua

    • Brad Owen
      April 13, 2018 at 07:24

      Yes the looting continues. This is as old as Empires, and all Empires are simply looting operations for the rulers and operators of Empires, at the expense of those who actually create the wealth of any and all Nations: the Labor Force. Not one Ford or Chevy gets made until the rocks&ores are taken out of the ground and the manufacturing process begins. The process can start as easily with fiat “Greenbacks”issued by a Sovereign Nation (what Lincoln found out; it’s called Hamiltonian American System of political economy) as with gold from a “privately-owned”(read “controlled by oligarchs”) Central Bank, a holdover from Feudal times (now-a-days called “Synarchy Internationale”), and ALL of those holdovers from Feudal times are STILL THERE in Europe&Britain and ALL of their colonies are tainted with same. Here in America, it goes by the name of Wall Street and “Federal Reserve”, arguably the British Crown’s most powerful colony. The Tories never left, but out-foxed the Patriots, and won in the “Boardrooms” what they could not win on the Battlefield. The Oligarchs are against any and all political expressions of We The People, where ever it occurs in the World.

  7. April 12, 2018 at 19:15

    This story should resonate for workers in Australia where wages have been stagnant for years whilcorporate profits have been growing strongly since the GFC, which Australia managed to survive due to good (Labor) Government. However a significant issue is the fall in union membership, though this might change as a new Generation of union Leadership comes forward determined to attack the Neoliberal way. The US has much to be criticised for, not least its willingness to let business run rampant and unchecked, with that disease spreading around the world.

  8. backwardsevolution
    April 12, 2018 at 19:06

    Here’s the 2-minute Ross Perot video clip. He explains that you can’t ship your jobs overseas and then readily import back the products from that country without taking into account the lower wages and no environmental controls. There should have been some price mechanism (tariff possibly) to account for this difference.

  9. backwardsevolution
    April 12, 2018 at 19:03

    Ross Perot warned everyone, but he was called a right wing nutcase and ridiculed. Look at this short 2-minute video clip of Ross Perot, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush debating offshoring of jobs and globalization. Notice the smirk on Bill Clinton’s face as Ross Perot explained how there would be a “giant sucking sound” as jobs headed south (through NAFTA). Clinton knew it would devastate whole industries, but he did it anyway.

    Turns out that Mexico was too corrupt, not very productive, and didn’t want to work on Sundays, and so the U.S. multinationals looked elsewhere – to China.

    Clinton was also instrumental in getting China into the World Trade Organization. China is ruled by a Chinese elite (the top 1% of their population) who belong to the Communist Party of China. No, the rest of the peasants don’t belong to the Party. They proceeded to steal all of the West’s technology, technology that was discovered by research departments at taxpayer-subsidized universities, technology that took years to develop.

    The deal was that any U.S. multinational who wanted to set up shop in China had to take on a Chinese partner (a loyal member of the Communist Party). The Chinese partner got 51% ownership while the U.S. partner got 49%. The U.S. multinationals could take advantage of the low labor costs and no environmental controls, and if they wanted to pull out of China, they had to leave all plant and equipment behind. The Chinese elite didn’t care if China got polluted. All they cared about was the money and having the ability to get their money out of China and over to the West to buy up property, pushing up prices for the locals.

    For their part, China promised not to steal intellectual property, copyrighted material or technology, and yet they proceeded to do just that. They stole everything that wasn’t nailed down. China also promised to open their markets up to U.S. products, but they have not followed through. That’s why Trump is going after them for the U.S. trade deficit. Trump doesn’t blame China because they were only doing what was in their country’s best interest. Trump blames Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama for allowing this to happen.

    Both the Chinese elite and the U.S. elite got filthy rich because of this practice, and the U.S. workers got shafted. Oh, goody, a toaster went from being $25.00 before globalization to $20.00 after. Such a saving! The U.S. multinationals took the jobs away, made a fortune, and saved you $5.00 on a toaster. Great.

    I see the fight with Trump being mainly a fight between the globalists (offshoring of jobs and the inflow of H-1B workers) and the nationalists (like Trump, who want Americans to have jobs).

    • Downside of Globalization
      April 12, 2018 at 20:42

      When, in about 1910, the United States faced massive income inequality and the Robber Barron class it did
      / passed the following legislation:

      1] Graduated Income Tax
      2] High Corporate Taxes
      3] Estate Taxes
      4] Anti-Monopoly Trust Busting Laws
      5] Taxing Worldwide Income

      Check this video out (3 mins) to see the mathematical effect of globalization
      on income inequality and why the above was necessary / brilliant:


      Unless you can break up those big chains up, you don’t have a chance. And the
      way that was done in the past was through Nation States. However, now
      with multi-national corporations, porous borders and global citizenship, global
      banking, it is a much harder problem to solve.

      What they are doing now is proposing “Universal Basic Income” to solve the
      problem, which is like getting $500 every turn to keep playing Monopoly
      after you have gone broke and don’t and can’t own any properties. How
      long will you continue to play a game like that?

      Some big problems are going to need solving in the not too distant future.

      • backwardsevolution
        April 12, 2018 at 20:47

        Very good post! I agree with everything you said.

  10. Gary
    April 12, 2018 at 18:30

    My dad was a steel worker for 30 years in Detroit. He lived to see the beginning of the Reagan era attack on unions, but was keenly aware that many union leaders themselves had been bought and compromised by corporate money. His solution always struck me as reasonable – it was that no one in union leadership should make more than the average wage of the rank and file workers. American union leadership in many cases simply sold out the workers while managing their own cozy nest egg and golfing with the corporate big wigs while doing – “negotiations.” Corruption is as corruption does.

  11. April 12, 2018 at 17:34

    Union workers in US were betrayed as well. When Clinton was President HE brought Wall Street into the democratic party. Union leaders were co-opted, paid of with trips and cash under the table NOT to unionize, NOT to get workers to fight for their and OUR rights. Its all under that New World Order crap.Keep the workers down, bring opiods into the mix all while the billionaires in every country robbed the citizens of their money, and stole the resources in each country for the biggest corporations in the world all emanating from the USA.

  12. mike k
    April 12, 2018 at 15:08

    The capitalist oligarch slave masters are always tightening the noose around their subjects, justifying it with mystifying voodoo economics. That some should have much more than others is the fatal flaw from which the whole fatal aristocratic scheme revolves. We either find a way to basic economic equality, or we are doomed by the greedy warmongering elites. These insane psychopaths are on course to destroy the ecologic basis of life on Earth, and with it all of us too smart for our own good sapiens.

  13. Zachary Smith
    April 12, 2018 at 15:08

    In my opinion the European workers ought to do some careful investigation and find out if Labor Leaders over there have been bought out. That has been the way the matter was handled in the US.

    Unfortunately just about everybody has a price, and paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to a few selected officials gets a return of a thousand or million fold.

    • Sam F
      April 13, 2018 at 07:40

      It appears that both unions, large company managers, and federal officials need anti-corruption mechanisms like triple administrations, fearsome penalties for briber and bribed, and thorough financial monitoring for life, of officials and their relatives and associates. We do not let them coerce each other with guns, so why permit coercion with money power?

  14. April 12, 2018 at 15:05

    Thank you, Andrew Spannaus for a nice synopsis of the precarious position of European labor and the welfare net that labor has struggled to secure. It is something that many of us in the U.S. have come to admire. Yes, divide and conquer has been the modus operandi of the neoliberal global order. The hope is that now that they’ve seen where these policies have brought the American middle class they will be more proactive in confronting those moves toward “global flexibility”. I firmly agree that more attention has to be given to treaties that fritter away sovereignty.

  15. Skip Scott
    April 12, 2018 at 15:04

    I’m a retired merchant seaman, and I’ve seen the sell-out of the unions first hand. After Reagan crushed the Airline Traffic Controller’s strike, the gloves were off. We were forced to accept an 8 percent pay cut and a 20 vacation cut in one fell swoop. Later the company made all the Officers managers, and even though Radio Operators are a one man department aboard ship, I was made a manager as well. I managed myself. Later that company got out of shipping all together, and the company that bought the ships offered us jobs through a different union. The union reps came around and told us what a great deal we were getting compared to contracts with other companies. They didn’t even have a standardized wage scale! You didn’t know what your wage would be when you shipped out of the hall, it depended on which contract you were under. They were basically a temp agency with benefits! Later the union bosses (brothers) wound up going to jail for fraud. I was lucky enough to get out while they still had a 20 year pensioned retirement.

    And of course the forces of globalization are threatening the occupation itself. The only thing keeping it alive is the Jones Act, which mandates US flag ships for shipping between US ports. The lobbyists have been working hard to eliminate the Jones Act, but so far the “National Security” argument has won the day for us. The latest threat to the occupation is autonomous ships, basically ships run by joy stick from afar (like drones) with no one aboard.

    • April 12, 2018 at 15:12

      Yes indeed Skip,… the bar is lowered not for us to jump over it, but to crawl under and eat their sh*t.

    • Oakland Pete
      April 12, 2018 at 19:46

      Skip, I’m very close to being what you are. But I am very aware of why “the company” declared officers to be managers. It was the 1982 letter from MM&P attorney Joe Fishnaller to the NLRB claiming exactly that. It was an ill-considered tactic in a complaint regarding representation on towboats during a jurisdictional beef with the Inland Boatmen. If you have doubts about that, write back or ask Don Marcus. We can blame the company all we want, but anyone under the illusion that management will not use every tool at its disposal (such as a union shooting itself in the foot) to undermine labor is naive. U.S. maritime labor has spent too much time invading each other’s turf instead of uniting against management. That does not mean the SIU, but it does mean the ranks standing up to our own piecards.

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