The growing myth of Social Europe

MICK CARTY highlights how the EU attacks collective bargaining rights

IF more proof was needed that social Europe is a myth, there is the fact that EU member states hit by so-called bailouts from the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF — the hated troika — are suffering the largest drop in workers with collective bargaining rights in the world.

The International Labour Organisation recently reported that the largest decline in collective bargaining coverage was in Romania with a 63 per cent drop and Greece at 45 per cent.

These “bailouts” — designed to ensure Europe’s largest banks were handsomely paid off while the population were dumped with the debt — also demand mass privatisation and severe austerity measures, with the troika directly interfering in wage negotiations.

The autumn International Labour Organisation (ILO) briefing on Labour Relations and Collective Bargaining has revealed that the sharpest decline in bargaining coverage occurred in the group of European countries that suffered severe economic difficulties during the crisis.

The bargaining coverage rate for this group of 10 countries fell by an average 21 per cent. Many of these countries — Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Portugal and Romania — required international financial assistance, it states.

This fully reflects the policy position contained within a report prepared by the European Commission’s directorate general for economic and financial affairs, which advocated employer-friendly reforms, including undermining collective bargaining, abolishing industry-level agreements at workplace level, decreasing bargaining coverage and an overall reduction in the wage-setting power of trade unions.

The ILO report highlights the assault which has been undertaken since the start of the crisis of capitalism, not only on collective bargaining in Britain but also internationally, and its data ranges from 2008-13.

According to the ILO, the collective bargaining coverage rate conveys the number of employees whose pay and/or conditions of employment are
determined by one or more collective agreements as a percentage of the total number of employees.

Between 2008 and 2013, the collective bargaining coverage rate in Britain fell by more than 4 per cent to 29.5 per cent.

However, the scale of the destruction of collective bargaining across the EU is even more apparent, where across the 24 member states for which data is available, collective bargaining coverage has fallen by an average of 8.5 per cent.

And where the European Union has imposed government by technocrats or the unelected troika, or other reactionary means to speed up structural adjustment in favour of transnational capital, the figures are even more striking.

The only EU member states which experienced any semblance of growth in the coverage rate were the Netherlands, France, Finland and Denmark — an average of 3 per cent.

The contrast is stark with countries such as Ireland, which experienced a decline in coverage of 6.7 per cent, Hungary 10.9 per cent, Cyprus 11.2 per cent, Slovakia and Portugal both 15.1 per cent and Slovenia 27 per cent.

If the total collective bargaining rate is considered to be a measure of the strength of trade unions in society, Britain’s fall of 4 per cent to 29.5 per cent can be considered a reduction in the bargaining power of its trade union movement of 12 per cent when the decline is considered as a proportion of the 2008 coverage rate.

This is much more closely aligned with the EU average of a 14 per cent reduction, and is the 10th highest decline in the EU, following Romania, Greece, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Slovenia, Cyprus, Portugal and Ireland.

The primary functions of trade unions are to regulate the supply of labour in the interests of the workforce and to use its collective power to place democratic controls on capital. Collective bargaining is the core activity in this respect.

Specifically outlawed under the four so-called “freedoms,” neither of these functions are possible within the European Union.

Trade unionists must realise that the EU actively seeks to violate trade union rights and the ability of workers to place any sort of restriction on capital.

This is why the Tory government, the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors will be campaigning for Britain to remain a member of the EU in the upcoming referendum.

Democrats in the workplace must make their voices heard in the coming year through Trade Unionists Against the European Union (tuaeu.co.uk) and work to build the progressive alternative to EU membership.

That requires the building of an internationalism based on the free co-operation of nation states, not the phoney internationalism or “solidarity” of corporate empire which offers workers nothing.

Mick Carty is general secretary of the Connolly Association