Pythagoras’ theorem may not have changed but teachers had to reinvent their methods during the pandemic (Drazen Zigic / shutterstock.com)
Europe must reject a return to austerity and support the workers who promote social wellbeing.
(23 June 2023) From health workers, carers, teachers and police officers to transport workers, civil servants, energy workers and many more, this United Nations Public Service Day is a valuable moment to recognise the crucial role public-service workers play in building thriving communities. Yet, buffeted as we are by a seemingly endless wave of crises—each deemed ‘unprecedented’ in turn—we need to reassess the decisions that have created the world in which we find ourselves. It is a world where many workers struggle to deliver the quality public services which form the basis of inclusive societies—those that put the wellbeing of all, not the few, centre-stage.
Last month, the European Parliament hosted a landmark, Beyond Growth conference. As European trade-union federations representing public-service workers across Europe, we believe that this concept, of going ‘beyond growth’ towards wellbeing within planetary boundaries, may hold the key to a different Europe.
Many who spoke during the conference stressed the role of ‘universal basic services’ at the core of an alternative—moving away from the commercialisation of public services and commodification of all aspects of life, reclaiming democratic public control and imagining an economy orientated towards human rights that works for people and the planet. With the European Parliament elections a year ahead, the political parties are well-advised to take up these concepts and demand that the next European Commission’s work programmes be based on this perspective.
It stands in sharp contrast to policies governments and the commission pursued until the pandemic. The commission imposed co-ordinated austerity measures, making the situation worse as public investments and funding were cut. The pandemic changed this, and the European Union and its member states showed the power instead of collective action for the common good and well-financed welfare states and public services. The crisis underlined how the public depend on public services. Public-service workers became visible and services of public interest proved how critical they are for society.
More than that, Covid-19 proved once more that public finance is needed to maintain transport, education, health and social care and to ensure their provision to the highest quality. This benefits all of us as users of public services. Throughout the pandemic, public-service workers were on the front lines, risking their health and wellbeing to ensure the safety and care of our communities. Health and care workers worked tirelessly, supporting the most vulnerable while facing shortages of personnel and resources.
Teachers adapted their teaching methods to continue providing quality education in the most challenging circumstances and to allow all students to benefit so that none be left behind. Transport workers maintained essential mobility, police ensured public safety and Europe’s civil servants worked diligently to keep government services running. Energy workers powered our homes and businesses, ensuring our digital connectivity. They showed unwavering dedication and deserve our utmost respect and support.
Austerity coming back
But austerity seems to be coming back. Latest Eurostat indicators show the EU entering a technical recession, with negative growth over two quarters, amid public expenditure being reduced.
It is crucial that lessons are learned from past mistakes. Yet new economic governance rules proposed by the commission, were they in operation, would imply, according to the European Trade Union Confederation, shaving more than €45 billion from the annual budgets of 14 member states. This the ETUC says could fund a million nurses or 1.5 million teachers, deficits among whom have major implications for the quality of care or education.
Due to such austerity policies in the past, our members have seen their wages frozen—in some cases for over a decade—with the effects still being felt. These workers are now suffering the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, making it impossible for many—such as workers in home- and childcare, most of whom are women—to make ends meet. This explains the many strikes, such as that by Romanian teachers in recent weeks, as well as health and care workers’ actions and those of public-transport workers across Europe.
All are united in opposing new austerity policies and their consequences: they need decent wages to match their rising expenses. Yet 11 EU governments have criticised even the modest reform proposals of the commission, seeking more robust targets for reducing public debt. Our federations agree this is not the way forward.
These austerity policies have already had adverse effects on workers, including inadequate wages and workforce reductions, as well as a detrimental impact on the quality of services. They combine with the relentless drive to push public services—which should be treated as public goods—towards commodification, resulting in some cases in their privatisation. The EU ‘liberalisation’ of electricity and rail is biting back as companies cannot deliver on the core requirements of furnishing public services.
Instead of a return to failed neoliberal policies and austerity, the ‘beyond growth’ idea represents a paradigm shift in economic thinking. It goes beyond a narrow focus on economic indicators, such as gross domestic product, and instead emphasises the wellbeing of society, holistically conceived.
Public Service Day was designated by the UN to celebrate the workers who dedicate their lives to serving the community. Our members’ contributions do go beyond growth: they ensure the smooth functioning of our society, they enable social cohesion and they provide essential services to all citizens. Our members make it possible for all to realise and enjoy their human rights, including the rights to mobility, education, safe communities and care.
By embracing the ‘beyond growth’ perspective, the EU can champion policies that value the work of public-service workers and foster a sustainable future. Our federations support massive public investment to promote the status of public services, to make that future happen and to deliver a just transition. Yet unless it rejects austerity and marketisation, the EU can forget essential public investments in green and digital infrastructures.
Investing in workers is an investment in the wellbeing of communities. The EU must champion policies that promote fair wages, decent working conditions and a skilled workforce. Public funding must be subject to social conditionalities and not wasted on tax avoiders, exploiters of our environment or violators of workers’ rights.
As members of the global union movement, we support the ‘Our Future is Public’ Santiago declaration. This calls for universal access to equitable, gender-transformative and high-quality public services as the foundation of a fair and just society. Ownership of resources and services matters: what is essential to dignified lives should be out of private control. The EU internal market is complete and there is no need to open up any further sectors. The citizens’ panels in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe came to a similar conclusion.
As the EU faces a recession, let us learn from past mistakes and prioritise the wellbeing of public-service workers: by investing in workers, valuing their contributions, ensuring the attractiveness of public-service work and championing fair and sustainable public policies, the EU can lead the way in building a just and equitable society. The challenges faced by these workers during the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis should serve as a rallying cry for change. The ‘beyond growth’ perspective—with the demands of the Our Future is Public movement at its core—paves the way forward.
Livia Spera is the general secretary of ETF, the European Transport Workers' Federation.
Susan Flocken is the general secretary of ETUCE, the European Trade Union Committee for Education.
Jan Willem Goudriaan has been general secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) since 2014.
Nigel Dennis is the head of office of Eurocop, the European Confederation of Police unions.