New ETUI publication - Beyond economic growth: The role of trade unions in the transition to well-being

EP Brussels building ©CanStockPhoto dimarik

(1 June 2023) A further contribution to the ‘beyond growth’ or ‘post-growth’  debates, the recent ETUI working paper sets out the case against the pursuit of undifferentiated economic growth and advocates substantial changes to European economies. The working paper reinforces growing demands to move away from growth objectives – captured in GDP – towards well-being and social progress. Public services in this framework are an indispensable part: when provided collectively, services such as health and social care, education, energy, affordable homes, or new services such as digital platforms, are more ecologically-friendly than market-driven services and they go a long way to guarantee a decent standard of living for everyone. To paraphrase from the paper, the State must use its power to shrink the rentier economy while growing the foundational economy embedded in local communities… The welfare State has a long history of enabling societal change, from providing healthcare and childcare to subsidising and taxing particular practices. 

The paper argues that taxes on non-labour incomes should be raised, i.e. on wealth, land, data, inheritance, unhealthy consumption, financial transactions and pollution to support public services (universal basic services) that could thus become a key pillar of trade union just transition demandsEPSU’s report ‘public and private efficiency’ has also shown that the public sector is not less efficient than the private sector and can be more effective in providing high-quality services without shifting costs to labour, nature or society. Public companies can employ economies of scale, have reduced transaction costs and generate fewer moral hazards related to asymmetric information. The current energy crisis reveals how the privatisation of energy companies has undermined the provision of a key basic service in many countries by neglecting the importance of energy supply stabilityThe focus on profits meant that many companies sold off their previously unprofitable gas storage capacities and are now reluctant to purchase gas for storage when prices are highBy investing in public research and development and promoting green procurement and social-ecological conditionality, the State can also play a key role in upscaling sustainable technologies. A quality public administration enabling regulatory changes, providing planning permissions and ensuring tax justice will also be key to implementing any social-ecological transformation. Governments - including at local and regional level - can also insist that strings are attached to any public funding going to companies.

The working paper is a welcome addition to the increasing calls for restrictions on the current profit-driven economic model, to have degrowth by design rather than by default. Already back in 2012 EPSU collaborated with the ETUI to speed up trade union reflections on beyond growth debates and to tackle climate change and environmental degradation. Our two-day conference “From (un)economic growth to future well-being” back in October 2012 had similar messages to those in the ETUI working paper. The conference drew on a study for EPSU from Sophie Dupressoir that addressed the impact and implications of climate change on EPSU’s sectors, and it made several still very pertinent recommendations, including for social and environmental conditionalities. 

The new ETUI working paper is an indication too that in spite of the growing evidence and initiatives, progress towards sustainable development is slow. The EU Green Deal and other initiatives to decarbonise our economies are welcome but are tackling more the symptoms than the cause of problems cause by growth. Ever since the UN scientific conference in June 1972 in Stockholm - also known as the First Earth Summit - economic policy remains stubbornly fixated on (individual) growth to the detriment of the environment and the aim of an equal, cohesive society. 

Tackling climate change and addressing inequality must go hand in hand if the green transition is to be successful. For this reason EPSU warmly welcomed the major Beyond Growth event “Beyond Growth” Conference on 15-17 May this year. Organised by 20 MEPs from 5 political parties in the European Parliament it brought together some 2,500 people in talks, discussions, and networking in 27 different panels, including on tax justice, care, and universal basic services.