Trade unions and the constant struggle for democracy

Thursday, 13 February, 2020

A combination of public opinion, trade unions, water activists and others has blocked the privatisation of a water company in Jyväskylä in Finland. It shows that Europe’s water movement, consisting of trade unions, environmentalists, water campaigners, anti-poverty networks and citizens is very much alive. People understand that water and waste water are public services that are best organised in public ownership. This is the lesson of the European Citizens’ Initiative Right2Water.

This month the European Council and Parliament will vote on the review of the Drinking Water Directive, including a strengthening of access to drinking water. This is not very ambitious but a further step to the recognition of the Human Right to Water and the understanding that public services need to be kept public.

The role of public services was also addressed in a meeting between trade union leaders and the EU Commissioner responsible for industrial policy, Thierry Breton. Europe needs industries that contribute to delivering the Green Deal and circular economy, develop digital technologies while ensuring good jobs and just transitions. Industry doesn’t function in isolation and needs quality public services and infrastructure to deliver smart growth and decent jobs. We expect initiatives for European digital infrastructure, such as European public cloud services and highly secure public digital networks. We don’t want our health and other public data to end up in the Amazon or Google cloud, being used to generate profits and feed these companies’ surveillance capitalism. Ensuring democratic oversight starting at local municipal level will be key to guarantee our independence and maintain our democracies.

Trade unions are part of this fight and part of the solution as we aim to democratise the workplace and prevent workers from being the subject of unilateral decision-making by employers or algorithms! Public service unions are sensitive to what happens in society, understanding the link between underfunding and understaffing and how these affect people and their capacity to realise their rights. 

Our German affiliate ver.di reacted swiftly to oppose the new coalition government in the state of Thüringen that relied on the support of the far-right AfD. In the face of so much opposition the new prime minister had to resign immediately but the fact that the AfD could play this role is another sign that politics is in flux across Europe. Conservative and liberal, parties have shown that they won’t hesitate to keep control with the support of the extreme right. Vigilance against hate speech, xenophobia and racism is a constant task for trade unions. We have to speak out against the extreme right.

This week will see our Ukrainian colleagues continue their campaign against the laws that aim to weaken trade unions and reduce workers’ rights while French health unions are organising a national strike on Friday 14th. In the UK local government unions – GMB, Unison and Unite – have rejected a measly pay offer from the employers and in Kazakhstan, our health affiliate has elected a new leadership in difficult circumstances. It remains under pressure from both the public authorities and the national union confederation following its decision to stand up for democratic decision-making. For more on the trade union situation there check out the Central Asia Labour Rights Monitoring Mission.